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Refugees in Southeast Asia find home in Christian community

Refugees are finding community through Christian small groups. (IMB Photo)

They left their world behind in search of a safer one. On their journey, they found the Creator of the world.

Fourteen thousand refugees in Southeast Asia are waiting to transition to Australia, Canada and the United States for resettlement. The majority of the refugees are Afghani and Somalian.

The timeline for their resettlement was once much shorter, but with a backlog of people seeking asylum and resettlement, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the wait for the refugees’ new world became much longer. However, the extended wait has created time for evangelism, church growth and personal development.

Justin and Camille Franssen* have been involved in refugee ministry throughout all stages of the process. Before moving overseas to serve with the IMB, Camille worked at a refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. The Franssens first served in a country from which many refugees flee. Now, the Franssens minister in Southeast Asia to refugees waiting to be resettled.

When the Franssens moved to Southeast Asia, they had no intention of working with refugees, but they were approached by the international church they attended and asked if they would be willing to join them in ministering to Afghani refugees. The Franssens now partner in ministry with the church, an American businessman and an Iranian believer named Dana*.

The Franssens, Dana and their other partners work primarily with Afghanis and Iranians, but they have Somalian, Sudanese and Ethiopian small groups as well.

Of approximately 7,000 Afghani refugees in the area, the Franssens estimate 500 have committed their lives to Christ in the past five years through the ministry of local and international churches, Christian ministries and outreach by IMB workers and national partners.

Initially, the Franssens hosted believers in their home for regular gatherings. Soon the group grew to more than 70 people. After the Franssens attended a training that emphasized church growth through small groups, they decided the group needed to split.

“[The training] taught us that accountability happens in small groups,” Camille says.

The group split into several groups of eight to 12 people, and the Franssens began training leaders. The Franssens and the Christians meet Sundays as a church, but that is not the focal point of church growth.

“We emphasize, ‘This isn’t where your true spiritual growth is. This is not where you should be getting meat,’” Camille says. “We can come together and be part of a larger community, but your home group is where you have accountability where you have discipleship, where you have growth.”

The beauty and effectiveness of the Franssens and Dana’s evangelism ministry is that it is done in community, as opposed to more traditional models of one-on-one evangelism. Many Middle Eastern and African cultures are communal, so learning in a close-knit group is highly effective. Justin and Camille say there is also less persecution because family members, often the source of persecution, are likely to join groups.

“What we found is that when people come to Christ individually, they don’t group because they’re afraid to group with other people,” Justin says. “If they’re listening to all the same stuff together, they immediately get into groups.”

If there are several people interested in learning more about the Gospel, the Franssens and Dana form small groups to study material covering the Trinity, the inerrancy of Scripture and Bible stories from creation to Christ. Meeting in small groups allows discussion and interaction.

“We say, ‘Okay, go back and talk to your family and your friends,’” Justin says. “When they talk to their family about it, they’re saying, ‘Hey, I met with these crazy Christians. They told me this crazy story, I don’t believe it, but what do you think?’ And then we get to go back and do apologetics. It reaches immediately a wider range than just the people hearing the story.”

After three months, those who are still attending the group meetings and choose to believe will be given the chance to be baptized. The group then becomes a discipleship group.

When the Franssens first began their ministry, refugees were, on average, in their city for two years. Now, the wait time is seven to eight years.

“One of the hardest things for these refugees is they don’t have a lot of choices,” Camille says. “They have no control over their lives, which is hard for us to understand, but I think even a lot of Americans may have more of an inkling of that idea since COVID hit because we had this illusion of being able to plan stuff and most of it has gone out of the window.”

Many Americans may feel they are in a holding pattern because of COVID-19; Camille says that’s how the refugees already felt.

“They’re just in this holding pattern, waiting for a call for the [United Nations] saying they get to go to a new country, and that holding pattern might last six months,” she said. “It might last eight years. It might last a lifetime. In the midst of that holding pattern, [pray] that they will be developing the fruit of the spirit in their lives … Pray they won’t just be sitting there waiting, but they will use that waiting time wisely.”

Camille says the extra time resulted in mature and well-trained leaders who will, in whatever country they are placed in, start small groups.

Justin and Camille’s ministry is now multi-generational and they’ve passed the mantle to local leaders. Those they’ve trained are training others and have taken leadership and ownership, which is the goal of IMB church-planting strategies.

“We’ve had our first jump from our church to another church where one of our guys that was very well-trained started a ministry,” Justin says. “They’ve been able to reach people we have not been able to reach before.”

Refugee communities in Southeast Asia are growing together in their faith, and though their earthly home is on hold, they’ve found a home in the Christ-centered small groups they’ve formed.

*Names changed for security