Over the summer I fell in love. My husband was not happy about this. I started texting him pictures of teenagers that I wanted to adopt and bring home. And he politely explained that we could not afford to send another child to college. But since I’ve been home, I haven’t been able to forget these loves.
I met them while volunteering with Mediterranean Hope, an Italian organization of Protestants who are responding to the thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa who are arriving on Europe’s shores in rickety boats. The teenagers, ages 14-17, traveling alone without parents or siblings, are at great risk of human trafficking.
One who captured my heart the first week was Demba, from Gambia. He reminded me of my own son, Connor, who like Demba exudes creativity, joy, frustration with injustice, and a longing to build real relationships. Like Connor he excelled at both soccer and music production.
But Demba had seen horrific things my son had never even imagined. Describing the six month journey to Italy he told me with sad and searching eyes, “The desert was the hardest part. People can be very wicked. The driver took all our water and dumped it out. There is a graveyard in the desert.” During the dangerous journey, Demba formed a deep friendship with another teenage boy. The two were imprisoned and forced to work as slave labor. When Demba’s friend asked “How much longer will we work today?” he was shot dead while sitting just inches away from Demba. After this, Demba escaped over a wall and got free to continue the journey alone.
Demba said that if he had it to do over again, he would not flee his homeland. The dangerous trip cost him $3,500. And so I asked him why he risked all to travel to a continent where he has no one, leaving his parents, siblings and friends behind. “I want to go to college, I want to be free.” Describing the oppressive dictatorship where he was born he says, “If you see something you do not like, you cannot complain. You cannot tell the truth. People are afraid to talk because they will put you in jail.”
I kept thinking of my own son at age 16. He was vulnerable and needed Dave and me to lean on through those challenging teenage years. But Demba has no one to lean on. Still, he voices hope: “I feel very alone. I miss my family and friends. But at least no one is beating me or putting a gun to my face.”
When I read about refugees in the news, I think of Demba and the other teens who I grew to love. I hear echoes of Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall love the stranger,” and Matthew 25:35 where Jesus says “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Only I no longer picture these as strangers but as friends.