A Firsthand Look at the Refugee Crisis and Surprising Hope

Two weeks ago, I met a man with a gunshot wound, and a woman with tuberculosis, babies with malaria, and a toddler so malnourished she looked like the photos we saw in the 80’s coming out of the Ethiopia famine. I waited in line with refugees who arrived in Uganda from South Sudan that very day, babies on backs, belongings bundled, future uncertain. And, though we saw tragedy and enormous heartbreak — I sat a while and squeezed the hand of a mama whose baby couldn’t be saved during childbirth the night before — what took me by surprise again and again… what stuck with me and wouldn’t leave me alone in story after story after story after story…

… was hope.


What a strange thing to find half a world away in Africa where I presumed to find only despair.


And do you know why?

Because these people, who are fleeing violence, who are uncertain, who are longing for a better future, who want peace, are not alone.

There is hope because they are not alone.

There are people waiting to receive them.

Do you know, in this age of worldwide isolationism and xenophobia and shutting down borders and building walls — in this era where we choose to fear for our personal security, though it has not been threatened, and deny our neighbors safety, though they are under attack — how the government of Uganda has responded to the 400,000 refugees flooding their country since July alone?

Uganda has responded by throwing their borders WIDE OPEN.

Can you imagine?? Wide open borders for refugees rushing to safety. As though the right things to do are to welcome the stranger, and to look after the widows and orphans in their distress, and to reach out to the poor who cry out for help.

And do you know who has shown up to help their neighbors? The Ugandan people.

I mean, yes; Medical Teams International, the organization I traveled with, is there doing health intake and triage for every single refugee entering the country. Every single one of hundreds of thousands of refugees, more coming all the time. But do you know who makes that work possible?

Ugandan doctors and nurses and administrators and janitors and midwives and surgeons and cooks and data analysts who show up every day to love their neighbors as themselves.

It was hope. Over and over and over again. An infusion of hope in a dark world.

Look, friends; I don’t know about you these days. I don’t know what you’re thinking or feeling while strange things are afoot on our planet. I don’t know whether you, like me, want to hunker down some days and mourn and grieve how we’ve lost our way. I don’t know whether you, like me, are populating your personal Facebook feeds with hashtags like #CallingOutTheLies and #RefuseGaslighting because you’re unwilling to be party to alternative facts. I don’t know whether you, like me, have a stash of pretzels and chocolate and Reese’s peanut butter cups on your nighstand you’re eating late at night to swallow your feelings. I don’t know whether you, like me, vacillate between fight and flight, back and forth in rapid succession — I MUST FIGHT one minute, and Oh Dear God, Let Me FLEE THIS INSANITY the next. But I do know all of that is OK. All of it. Shock, anger, grief. It’s all normal. It’s all OK for a time. But eventually, we need to remember hope.

We need to remember hope, and we need to fight for it.

But in case you, like me, sometimes forget — in case sometimes hope slips your mind or you find it hard to grasp — slippery, slippery hope — we can rest for a tiny bit knowing the people of Uganda are carrying it for us until we can pick it up again. Like kites made of garbage bags and flown with joy, we can pick it up again soon.

With love,




P.S. All photos here were taken by yours truly, but are owned by Medical Teams International and are used with permission. All thoughts/opinions here are my own, however, and should not be held against Medical Teams. 😉

P.P.S. The refugee and displaced people crisis is expected to increase in 2017. But do not despair! There are real things we can do to help refugees around the world. Learn what the UN Refugee Agency, one of Medical Teams’ valued partners, is doing to support refugees, more than 50% of whom are children. Learn what it could mean for refugees and displaced people if the world, including the U.S., continues its policies of isolationism. Designate your donations to organizations like Medical Teams International by specifying “refugee relief.” And remember hope, and that we get to help in building it.

P.P.P.S. I’m terribly sorry I’ve been offline so much lately. After our flights were so dramatically messed up, we ended up extending our trip to Uganda so we could still see ALL the amazing work being done there. I was home only 10 hours before leaving for the Magic in the Mess Writing Retreat I run… which was AMAZING thanks to incredible participants and staff who let me recover from jet lag at the gorgeous Oregon Coast. It’s been a whirlwind, in other words. A GOOD whirlwind, but a whirlwind nonetheless.

P.P.P.P.S. The GOOD NEWS is the writing retreat DID afford me the opportunity to finish the latest draft of my book proposal, which is now back in the hands of my literary agent. I do hope to have more news to report on that soon.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The writing retreat participants, particularly Jen and Heidi, DID spend significant time advocating that I STOP DROPPING THE BALL on updating you on Betty and the kitchen remodel, which is … wait for it … COMPLETE, but about which I’ve failed to tell you. So stay tuned for more.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I do feel very silly ending a post about refugees with an update about my kitchen. Gross. But I’m also grateful you let me be very Both/And, friends. Both deeply, abidingly concerned about people suffering around the world and what I can do to change that AND excited to cook with Betty.

Sending love, friends.


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9 responses to “A Firsthand Look at the Refugee Crisis and Surprising Hope”

  1. Your work has inspired me to work up to running a 5k in mid-March in support of MTI (the race itself isn’t supporting MTI, I’m just reaching out to friends/family to consider donating to MTI). I’m planning to highlight the work they do, while letting people laugh at my exploits, on a fb page. Thank you for all that you do, and for your wonderful blog.

  2. I just wanted to let you know that I almost ended a paragraph in a work email today with the phrase “Both/And.” JUST before hitting Send, it occurred to me that perhaps they wouldn’t actually know what I was talking about. You know you’re rad when you’ve made it into this language geek’s parlance. 😉

  3. Hooray for Jen and Heidi for asking the question I was afraid to ask! I really crave an update on Betty, but it seems sort of shallow to focus on a kitchen remodel on the other side of the country when the kitchen owner is on a medical mission trip on the other side of the world. But Betty deserves our love, too. Ashamed/Not Ashamed.

  4. Thank you for this, and for your work and the work of MTI. I work for Lutheran World Relief, an i ternational relief and development organization, and I’m always inspired by our partners, project participants and donors. My heart and soul always see my “normal life” through fresh and tear-stained eyes after a trip like yours.

    While we seek the ever-shifting balance between rest and resistance, hope is critical to our souls and to ensuring our resilliance and endurance in the long trek to come. So thankful for your work and your words, and that your travels were safe!

  5. Beth (and others),

    If you need inspirational comfort, this astronomy post about Daphnis, a very small moon of Saturn, shows that very small actions can have big consequences: http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2017/01/20/if_you_need_to_find_some_strength_saturn_s_moon_daphnis_may_help.html.

    Also, former Congressional staffers have put together a free guide to resisting the most onerous parts of the political agenda: https://www.indivisibleguide.com.

    May we all be like Daphnis.


  6. Thank you for this. I have been feeling so inadequate in response to all the crap going on in our country, so your link to how to donate was appreciated. I want to do something here in our community as well, but it’s a start.

  7. Wow! Beautiful people, beautiful words. As is often the case, your realness and unabashed authenticity help to put life into perspective. Congrats on Betty and the pending book, too. While there is no Betty in my future, I have resolved that this will be the year I birth my book.

  8. I have been waiting for an update on Betty. I was worried that the ridiculous stress you have been under would have left you with some nightmare half-finished kitchen that would feature on DIY SOS when your thirtysomething kids wrote in to say that their mother had been cooking on a camping stove for the last 25 years;)
    On a more elevated note, what a beautiful and inspiring post about your experiences in Uganda. Thank you!


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