Annual conference aims to engage students in helping persecuted people around the world
The lights in the room dimmed. Suddenly, there were loud, wailing sirens and the sounds of hovering aircraft and explosions. Shouts could be heard from each corner of the room as the girls yelled out, eagerly looking to find the rest of their lost family members.
The IBSA Building was transformed into a refugee camp Nov. 5 for the annual AWSOM conference for young women (AWSOM stands for “Amazing Women Serving Our Maker”). Through an intensive, simulated overnight experience, this year’s AWSOM focused on helping the 222 students in attendance understand the plight of the refugee, and how they can help. Attenders also heard the stories of Christians who have lived with persecution (see boxes).
Alina Aisina – Central Asia
Aisina was born in a gospel-sensitive country in Central Asia to a Christian mother and an abusive, atheist father.
Aisina, her sister, and her mom eventually fled their city because their lives were threatened for what they believed. Aisina grew up with a lot of fear, she said, “Not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring and being afraid for my life.”
After receiving a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child, however, Aisina described the change in her life. While her physical life didn’t change, she said, her attitude did because she knew she wasn’t alone. She felt a loving Father looking after her by using strangers from another country to demonstrate Christ’s love for her through the shoebox.
After the simulated war broke out, the students, grouped in “families” of five, were instructed to find refuge in a neighboring country. They could only travel with limited items, however, and had to leave the rest of their belongings behind.
When the girls reached their temporary shelter, a setup of makeshift tents representing a refugee camp, they were given minimal supplies. Current and former missionaries dressed as border guards spoke only the language of the countries they served, to represent the foreign atmosphere to which refugees must adapt.
In the end, the family had to make the decision either to return home to their war-torn country, navigating elements such as land mines, or to apply for citizenship in the new country in hopes of building a new life.
The crisis is real
Prior to the simulation, International Mission Board missionary Christopher Mauger showed a brief aerial video clip documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslims as they fled from Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
Mauger, who serves in Southeast Asia, described the situation as “desperate” and “unbelievable,” and as a crisis that “needs prayer.” “If they have to go down [to Bangladesh] for refuge, it’s really bad,” he said. “There’s nothing there.”
Mauger explained how “hundreds of thousands” of Rohingya Muslims have been exiting the country as a result of persecution from Myanmar’s government, which is Buddhist.
“For those who have a place to live, they are living in camps with plastic for roofing,” Mauger said. “They are crowded in small areas, food is scarce, and they don’t have any hygienic necessities.”
Mauger described how easy it is to get distracted with a situation like this by blaming the evil in this world. But by changing their perspective, he said, Christians can help. “We can tell these people about God,” he said, “by giving and supporting the Christian organizations that are helping in that area.”
Wendy – China
Wendy lives in China, where she partnered with Ronny and Beverly Carroll while they served as missionaries with the International Mission Board. The Carrollslive in Illinois, and Wendy visited Springfield to speak about the ministry she coordinates to help people long oppressed because of their beliefs.
During the Chinese Revolution in the 1960s, Wendy said, all forms of religion were repressed. While many Chinese Christians fled, others, including a man named Su, were imprisoned. After Su’s release 20 years later, Wendy’s ministry found him and helped him rediscover Christ. This was Su’s first encounter with a Christian in more than two decades.
Becki McNeely, a leader from Lakeland Baptist Church, said AWSOM “opened the students’ eyes to an increased awareness of the state of refugees.”
Several students echoed McNeely. One young woman described how it “must be hard to live in a persecuted country” after hearing the accounts of the speakers. Several more expressed their increased awareness of the refugee crises and were “saddened” at its reality.
Carmen Halsey, director of women’s ministry and missions, said IBSA is securing resources to inform churches about refugee issues. She added that she hoped the experience helped students to be able to “feel the psychological anguish caused by separation and flight” and to “see what forces people into refugee situations,” as well as adopting a more welcoming attitude towards refugees in their own country.