What I Learned From Refugees

In light of current events I’m reposting a blog about  tutoring refugees in 2015. Two facts: 1) They need support. 2) We won’t be able to help them all.

But here’s a challenge: our government, under Democrat and Republican presidents, has not and cannot do as much as people wish. I urge you to consider thoughtfully and prayerfully doing something that makes life better for at least one refugee. Protesting makes a point, but volunteer hands and feet, and private pocketbooks, speak louder. There are opportunities everywhere.

This could happen to any of us. (two photos by anonymous friend)

Heartbreaking Statistics

For the first time since WWII more than 50 million refugees worldwide are displaced permanently, and the number is climbing. The media has shown


Syrian refugees in 2015 seek safe refuge in Europe.  Photo courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency.


many disturbing images. In the summer of 2015, I tutored refugees in an English as a Second Language class. Fresh off the planes, they came from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. Here are some impressions:

KFC, Cheesecake, Ice Cream

“I like KFC. It–it is good,” says the middle-aged Iraqi woman, when asked her favorite American foods. “Oh, and cheesecake is very delicious,” she adds. She tells me she spent four years in Jordan after fleeing Iraq. She wants to work as a chef. One of her adult sons is with her in the U.S., but she worries about the other one still in Iraq. “It is very dangerous,” she says.

When her U.S. son picks her up from class, he asks how his mother is doing. His English is good. I suggest he might help her with homework. He frowns, “I want her to learn to do it herself.” I gently say she might learn faster if he helps. There’s silence. I don’t think this idea is going to fly in entrenched cultural roles.

“I like ice cream,” smiles the petite, shy twenty-year-old from Burma. She draws a picture of her former home—a thatched hut on stilts. Now she lives in a city apartment with her sister and brother-in-law. She enjoys listening to Christian music on her iPhone and wants to be a tailor. She is always early to class with homework completed.

Afghan Brothers

“My father is old; my mother is happy; my girlfriend is beautiful.” These are the sentences using adjectives that two Afghani brothers create. They have only been in the U.S. a few days. Their English is poor, they say, because they have spent five years in Hungary, followed by four in Turkey. They yawn a lot from jet lag and are cautious. After asking their ages, I realize they were ten and eleven years old when they left Afghanistan.

The Congo Family Refugees

As summer progresses the Congo family from a Burundi refugee camp is a joy to tutor and a mystery. During their first time to class, they have only been in the U.S. about 10 days. Trauma is evident in tense bodies, sad eyes, and the way they interact with one another. They speak mostly French and Swahili. I notice the depressed mother and 22-year-old daughter have several scars on their arms; the mother has scars across her throat. The son, about 21-years-old, seems healthy, but he misses classes because of sickness and doctor appointments.

From the start, they are A students. The daughter tells me she has seven brothers and sisters. About a month later, the daughter reports her three middle school brothers have arrived at the airport. Mom will not be coming to class anymore.

Cubans and Iraqi Refugees

My tutoring also includes a beefy mechanic from Cuba, who is interested in learning about the Craigslist classified jobs. A sad Cuban woman comes to class only twice—she is grieving the eight-year-old son she left behind with grandma for economic opportunities. She says it is never possible for her son to come to the U.S. I don’t know if this is true, but it is true for her at that moment.

Most of the refugees I meet are motivated to work and want to make lots of money. Sometimes they are disappointed they cannot have the jobs they dreamed about. In the case of the Iraqis, many are white collar professionals, who risked their lives to help the U.S. military. Now they must work at lower-paying jobs like valet parking, janitorial work, and housekeeping and restaurant services. Still, they are the fortunate ones who won the residential lottery.

Kevin and Vicki Witte with 12 of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte)
Kevin and Vicki Witte with some of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte) Find Vicki’s insightful blog at:

Is a Nickel Worth More Than a Dime?

World Relief offers a free study guide download and first chapter of this book at https://www.worldrelief.org/seekingrefuge

In class, students and teachers smile a lot and use hand gestures. I learn too.  For example, I never thought about how foreigners must discern that even though a dime is smaller than a nickel, its value is twice as much. Initially, they confuse a quarter with a nickel.

When we “read” 1:00 p.m. we say, “one o’clock”—not zero o’clock. Some of the refugees do not comprehend our mail system or banking, because they do not have access to these systems in their countries.

Running a Fever?

During one session Teacher Cameron goes over the basics of a health clinic and pharmacy. How can one understand what “running a fever” is, when one doesn’t speak or read English? Could they explain to a doctor such words as constipation or diarrhea. Will they give the proper dosage of medicine to a sick child? Will they accurately tell the doctor which body part hurts? So many daily culture actions we do automatically.

In my summer as an ESL tutor, my greatest reward was seeing several refugees become less stressed. Their body language became more relaxed, and there were genuine smiles and some joking. They all said they appreciated America’s safety.

Do You know the Difference Between “Refugee” and “Immigrant”?

I thought these nouns were interchangeable. Now I know an immigrant has more choices in migrating to another country.  Because of war or natural catastrophe, a refugee never goes “home.” Refugees, many who live for nine years in a camp, must wait for someone–some country–to adopt them. Sadly, children and women are not safe in many of these camps.

I learned the U.S. is one of the only countries that accepts refugees with health issues. In 2015, there were approximately 70,000 refugees per year admitted to the U.S.–this number was down from the 100,000 per year that came to the U.S. under President Clinton. The government decides which refugees to take and from which countries. Why some countries and not others? A refugee worker I heard answered, “Who knows? But it is no secret that the government doesn’t do anything for free.”

We can always do better. The question is, “What does that look like?” Our political system’s failure cannot be an excuse for doing less or nothing at all. “Who is my neighbor?” is a soul-searching question that dances with “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Each person must wrestle with the answers, and then hopefully do something to help, even if it is outside the comfort zone.


A Blog About Refugees

Friend Vicki Witte spends a lot of time helping refugees, and she blogs about it at:


A Good Movie

Reese Witherspoon, starring as a social worker in "The Good Lie" movie greets three Sudanese refugees at a Kansas airport.
I recommend the movie The Good Lie, with Reese Witherspoon. Here, as a social worker, she greets Sudanese arrivals at a Kansas airport. Some of the actors are former refugees. Photo courtesy of Alcorn Entertainment/Warner Bros.

Graduation, Pilgrimage, Reunion

C.S. Boyll on graduation day, with parents Ben and Rosalie. The author is thankful they provided an opportunity they didn't have.
C.S. Boyll on TCU graduation day, with parents Ben and Rosalie. The author is grateful they provided an opportunity that they did not get to experience.

I am off on pilgrimage to a Texas Christian University reunion with friends I haven’t seen for decades. We were a tight group, who obviously had something special (since we’re spending time and money for this reunion). But some of us have had difficulty keeping connected–even Christmas cards fell away with best intentions. Now is an opportunity to get reacquainted in a fresh way–remembering, and sharing celebratory moments and battle scars.

Thinking of life as pilgrimage has been a constant for me. It still amazes how God teaches us with a rhythm of heartbeats and breaths, under sunrises and sunsets. One day at a time is plenty with its concerns, said Jesus in Matthew 6:34.

Below is a freshened excerpt of a former “There’s a Blog in My Eye post.” It is what I am thinking about while reflecting on TCU graduation, this reunion, and daily pilgrimage.

Imagine a California traveler journeying down a rocky path in the 1700s. It is the rainy season. He is cold and wet, hungry and thirsty, riding his mule for hours. Suddenly, in the darkness, he sees some flickering lights and hurries toward them. He knocks on the large mission door and is welcomed inside. Here is a place to rest, eat and drink, find encouragement and information–until he must travel again. The Camino de Real or King’s Highway was a pathway along the California coastline which connected some 21 missions for weary travelers. Each mission was a day’s journey of 30 miles from each other.  One can still visit many of these missions that stretch from San Diego to San Francisco.

Mission at Carmel's garden courtyard
Mission at Carmel, California (photo by CSB)

With a little faith we can stretch the Camino de Real into a metaphor for our life journeys. We’re on God’s road; his time table. The journey sometimes is easy with joy, but often difficult with tears. We press on.

I once heard poet Luci Shaw use the Camino de Real as a symbol for journaling. She suggested that daily, reflective writing can be mission respite from our work. It can refresh, encourage, and reveal insights we do not understand until we write them down. I have found this helpful, but journaling isn’t for every one. We each must discover what aids us best in traveling.

Recently, I discovered blogger D.L. Mayfield, a young woman who struggles with her vocation. Mayfield writes that she didn’t feel “called” to minister to the poor as much as she felt dragged. I appreciate her honest writing. She admits that she

D. L. Mayfield
Writer D.L. Mayfield

often feels helpless and overwhelmed by the hurts of others. She wonders if making Funfetti cakes for sad neighbors really is meaningful. But then she writes:

“…I feel like God said: you keep baking cakes. Some of the most unrecognized ministries are my favorites. Like, the ministry of playing yu-gi-oh cards with awkward adolescent boys. The ministry of bringing white styrofoam containers of Pad Thai to people whose baby is very, very sick. The ministry of picking up empty chip wrappers at the park. The ministry of sending postcards. The ministry of sitting in silence with someone in the psych ward. The ministry of gardening flowers….The ministry of noticing beauty everywhere–in fabrics, in people, in art–and in the wilderness.

“The older I get, I realize now that the ministries I once thought so trivial I now think are the most radical. I spent the last year being stripped of anything that would make me feel lovely to God, and I came out a different person. Because I discovered that he always loved me anyways. I’m not Joan of Arc, it turns out. I’m just somebody who likes to bake cakes.”

That’s D.L. Mayfield. With her I relate to small tasks transforming the trivial to the radical. Water turns into wine. Our work, our life journeys, the very essence of ourselves, matter to the One who keeps us. And if we believe this, our best works are done in response to the love that does not fail. In faith, and not alone, we keep traveling.


For a good armchair pilgrimage find the award-winning 2010 DVD The Way with Martin Sheen. The movie is about a grieving father embarking on the historical pilgrimage “The Way of St. James” in Spain.

Martin Sheen walks with walking stick and back pack against rolling, green hills and distant hazy mountains.
Martin Sheen does pilgrimage in The Way.

You can check out D.L. Mayfield at www.dlmayfield.com . Her new book of essays Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith is scheduled for release in August from HarperOne.




Ted and Shelly Travis: They’re Great Neighbors!

One of the pleasures of getting older is experiencing long life with childhoodSmiling, older couple Shelly, left, and Ted Travis. He is a husky black man with white/black beard and glasses. She has white, short cropped hair, glasses, wearing dangling blue earrings. friends. Life’s tapestry is rich and interwoven with both tears and laughter, both answered and unanswered prayers. The photo above is of two longtime friends and a lot of their neighbors. Ted and Shelly Travis have spent their adult lives in city ministry. They are very neighborly, even naming their organization Neighborhood Ministries. Shelly and I go back to first grade in a rural North Dakota community. Ted grew up in Long Island, New York.

The group photo is of a recent church reunion. The church shuttered its doors a few years ago, but the Travises were central to the reunion. Isn’t it beautiful how integrated and multigenerational the photo is?

Doing ministry in the city has not been easy. When Ted and Shelly were newlyweds they chose to live among a poor black neighborhood with a rich history. Shelly, in the minority, was viewed with suspicion at first, but her extravert personality and gifts of leadership and hospitality won over the diehards. I visited the Travises a few times back then. Their phone was always ringing, and people liked to stop by at all hours with all kinds of needs. Ted and Shelly worked with their neighbors to get a drug house off their block. Basically, they reported en masse all drug activity to the police and badgered the landlord to do something about his tenants.

Besides being loving neighbors in community, a lot of the Travis’s ministry has been training teenagers through camps and after school programs. The teenagers, possibly for the first time in their lives, are given responsibility to train the younger children. This supervised empowerment often results in confidence and God-honoring leadership skills. Throughout the years, Shelly also has mentored many young moms.

Black Book Jacket, with tan lettering for title Building Cathedrals, above are grey letters for Ted Travis and below in orange letters are: "Urban Youth, Discipleship That Works"Ted, who received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, has recently published a book on what he has learned and applied in 30 years of urban work: Building CathedralsUrban Youth Discipleship That Works (available from Amazon.com).

Ted’s story of how he became a follower of Jesus is not typical. He was a black American studying opera in Austria and converted and discipled by European missionaries. Music was his first love, until God’s love undid him. But it was a long process for Ted to accept God’s calling to urban ministry. It probably began with his first Christmas after giving his life to Jesus. Ted writes in Building Cathedrals:

“I had already made plans to fly home for two weeks. Fear of returning to my home environment gripped me. I was terrified to go back, for fear I would somehow lose this ‘feeling’ of new life within me. With great anxiety, I shared my dilemma with the man who had led me to Christ.

I tried as best I could to describe the source of my fears—the harsh realities of my neighborhood. As I talked, I noted Bud smiling. I thought to myself, He’s not understanding what I’m saying. So I continued, adding graphic detail to the descriptions of my city. But the more I talked, the bigger he smiled.

Finally, in vintage Bud fashion, he burst out in a hearty laugh. Then, in a strangely reflective yet joyful tone, he said, ‘What a tremendous opportunity!’

I thought he was crazy.

In actuality, he was right. I survived my stay at home. I even made new Christian friends who introduced me to a wonderful local church body. When I returned to Vienna after holidays, I made a plaque and hung it on my wall. It read, in big bright letters: ‘What a Tremendous Opportunity!’”

Ted and Shelly were longtime friends and staff members in Denver’s Youth for Christ ministry before they started dating. Back in the eighties an interracial couple was not that common. The North Dakota town Shelly and I grew up in was all white. In fact, I don’t recall interacting with any black Americans until I went to college. What we knew of black culture came from movies and TV: city riots in places like Detroit and LA., Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, civil rights marches, Sanford and Son, Julia, To Sir with Love, Guess Whose Coming to Dinner?.

When Shelly told her parents she was seriously dating a tall, dark, and handsome man with the emphasis on dark, they were alarmed. It took a long time for them to understand that this love was genuine. Ted remembers being grilled by his future in-laws, with emphasis placed on protecting their daughter in the inner city. Throughout the years, whenever the Travises visited Shelly’s family, Ted was singled out as “that black fellow married to one of those Samuelson girls.” But the provincial small town had its advantages too. The Travis children loved its freedom and safety, like being able to ride bikes anywhere they wanted.

After doing ministry in Buffalo and Chicago for a few years, Ted and Shelly recently returned to their Five Points neighborhood in Denver. After receiving a kidney transplant last year, Ted has a new lease on life; he doesn’t want to squander this gift. He is busy teaching what he has learned in urban ministry to the next generation of leaders.

The Travis’s Denver neighborhood has changed over the years. It now has lot of “gentrys,” young professionals who enjoy city life and are rehabbing old homes. Their demand for housing has pushed many poor out of a neighborhood becoming less and less affordable. Ted and Shelly, renting an apartment, live a stone’s throw from the house they raised their family in. Some of their neighbors are from countries like the Congo. The changing geography presents challenges, but Ted and Shelly emphasize that people shouldn’t be afraid. The mission field has come to the back door. We should take this change as a tremendous opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves.

For more information on Neighborhood Ministries, go here: http://tdinitiative.org.