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The Rohingya: Global Exiles in Need of the Global Church

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Jul 18, 2017

They had no home, no country, no future. Orphaned and trafficked at a young age, the three Rohingya boys were smuggled from an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Myanmar into a neighboring country. Brought to the city, they ended up in a begging syndicate—exploited by organized crime groups that pocketed their earnings. Eventually, they escaped, finding their way to a “good person’s” house. Handed off to the police, then to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the boys were ultimately put into a school-cum-shelter where Barb, an MTW missionary in Southeast Asia, had been teaching English to other Rohingya just like them.

“When they came to me they were incredibly messed up,” said Barb. “They had never been to school before.”

Barb gathered a team from her local church and for 11 months they patiently worked with the boys to help correct behavioral problems amassed from a life surrounded by street toughs and smugglers, teaching them to read, write, and speak, first in the local language and then in English, and showing them the love of Jesus day by day.

Starting with mercy
The boys are Rohingya, a majority-Muslim people group that, though they have lived in Buddhist Myanmar for centuries, are now denied citizenship and basic human rights by the government. Stateless and facing violence and oppression at home, many Rohingya flee to neighboring countries as refugees. Because of their lack of security or legal protection as stateless people, some, like the three boys, are trafficked and exploited along the way.

“Rohingya are the least resourced refugees in [the country where I work],” said Barb, whose MTW team focuses on reaching Muslim people groups across the Asian Crescent. “Which is ironic, because it is a Muslim country and that’s why most of them come here—to get help and shelter.”

“With the Rohingya in particular, we have to start with mercy ministry,” Barb added. “This seems to be the best access point for the church.”

In 2014, Barb proposed to her MTW team that a church planting work be started among the Rohingya. She offered to help pave the way by connecting with the community and recruiting others to lead the work. To that end, Barb started teaching English at a school-cum-shelter that served Rohingya refugees in their Southeast Asian city. Since then she has hosted several short-term mission teams from American PCA churches and MTW’s work in Australia. The first team spent an intense three weeks researching the Rohingya and compiling their information so that Barb could move forward with her efforts in a more informed manner. More recent groups have helped with English camps for Rohingya children.

Briefly back in the U.S. this May and June, Barb and her husband are recruiting short- and long-term missionaries, including for Rohingya mercy ministries like ESL, health, mental health, and literacy initiatives.

“We’re also looking for church planters,” Barb added. “That’s the end goal. When you have that first Rohingya believer, they’ll need a new family and the church needs to be that family. Christ’s body needs to be ready to open its doors, and that’s everywhere, whether in Southeast Asia or in the U.S.”

The overall plan, which MTW calls “The Rohingya Initiative,” aims to create awareness, promote prayer, and equip a global network of churches to engage with Rohingya refugees in their communities. “Global” is a key word here. The refugee crisis, and the crisis specifically among beleaguered, stateless Rohingya, is a global one, and Barb views the global Church as the answer. To that end, Barb is working to recruit committed partner churches in the U.S., and has met with pastors from Australia and several Southeast Asian countries to discuss efforts to embrace Rohingya in their cities.

Trusting God to Complete the Work
And what of the three Rohingya boys?

After being taught and nurtured by Barb and her church team for nearly a year, the boys were approved by authorities for resettlement as refugees in the United States. Barb contacted their resettlement agency and has been able to keep in touch with them and even visit them in their new home with foster parents in California.

“Most of my refugee kids get shifted around and I don’t ever see them again, so this was really special,” said Barb. “Three kids, it’s just a small, small thing. There’s so many more, hundreds of thousands of refugees with needs … but we saw God working in these boys’ lives in amazing ways, which we pray will lead to their salvation.

“I have to constantly remind myself that what Christ is doing through me is of eternal value,” Barb added. “For me, that’s like a slippery handle. I get a hold of it every once in a while. So many times I feel like, ‘I didn’t prepare well enough’ or ‘This place is just so resistant to the gospel,’ or ‘When are they ever going to learn?’ And then I have to grab a hold of that handle again and say, ‘No. Every time I come in here, every time the love of Christ is demonstrated through me, that is of eternal value, and so I must go.”

The three Rohingya boys are still Muslims, but before meeting Barb they had never before even encountered a Christian. For 11 months Barb and her team were able to walk with them, help them with behavior problems, get them literate, love them with the love of our Redeemer-King, and most importantly, tell them the story of the gospel. When they made it to the U.S., Barb kept in touch and one of her long-time supporters even signed up with the refugee resettlement service to continue the work that Barb began.

“I think it’s a great example of this global body of the Church,” said Barb. “Now they’re in America where their access to the gospel is so much greater. I’m just praying that as they get older the Church is faithful in continuing to pursue them with the gospel.” 

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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