As Professor of Intercultural Studies, Bob Brenneman, Ph.D., brings decades of knowledge from having lived in the Middle East. His experiences with different people groups and refugees and his fluency in some of the languages of the region give him the ability to bring to life for his students all aspects of cross-cultural engagement.
But Brenneman believes there is still no substitute for being there. In May, he led a group of 10 North Central University students on a trip to Turkey to work and live among refugees for three-and-a-half weeks. While the locations change a bit from year to year, Brenneman makes this trip annually because he sees it as vital for students pursuing an education in intercultural studies.
This year, most of the time was spent in Turkey, although after their initial service work, some students went to Cyprus for summer internships.
Living with refugees
While in Turkey, the group worked with two organizations serving refugees from surrounding war-torn countries. At the heart of the experience was the opportunity for the students to stay with refugee families in their homes. “Staying in homes gave students a significant inroad into what refugee life is like,” Brenneman explained.
On this trip, most of the refugees the students met were Iraqi Christian refugees who fled their homes after being threatened by ISIS because of their faith. The students were surprised to learn of the refugees’ plight.
“What made their stories gut wrenching,” Brenneman explained, “was that the people not only had to flee their homeland, but they are baffled about why they are not accepted in the West as Christians. Many of them were given 24 hours by ISIS to either leave or die unless they could pay a tax or convert to Islam.” Now in limbo in refugee settlements, they don’t understand the seeming indifference to their situation elsewhere in the world—especially from other Christians.
One of the goals Brenneman has for his students is to understand the refugee crisis is one of great the great crises of our times. “There are 68 million refugees!” he said. “With this huge mess, I want to alert our students to this great issue. Many of the refugees have never met Christians before, so it’s good to see Christians in real life.
Finding common ground
The students on the trip were able to learn of positive outcomes through the difficulties the refuges face. “Many refugees have come to faith through this tragedy,” Brenneman said. “The Scriptures say so much about the alien, the refugee, the foreigner among us. Students on this trip learn: What is it like to be a refugee? To not be able to go to school? To be unsure when you can go back or move forward?”
One of the highlights of the trip was to see 200 people worshiping Jesus, primarily Iranians. Brenneman said the group also enjoyed services in a Turkish church and an Arabic church.
Brenneman is always encouraged to see his students bond with the refugee families. Friendships form as the students from the U.S. and the refugees find common ground in youth culture. “Whether through shared music or Instagram, the young people found commonality of cultures despite the big barriers,” he observed “A lot of them bonded well with the families they stayed with.”
‘Something I will never forget’
For Sable Heimer, a junior ICS major, the trip was life changing. “This summer going overseas to Turkey was my first time ever out of the country, and it is something I will never forget,” Heimer said. “To be surrounded by a people group, a culture, a language that is not your own is something more than words can describe. It is new, unknown, terrifying, and completely exhilarating … friendships made with people from all over the world, discovered in Turkey.”
Senior ICS major Madalyn Meetz was also on the trip and found her perspectives greatly altered by her experience. Connecting with the Iraqi Christian refugees was powerful for her. “These were holy moments that I will never forget,” Meetz reflected. “As a people group, Iraqis, are very hospitable and brought us many types of foods and drinks, but it was not the endless trays of food and cups of tea that I loved most, but it was listening to their stories of persecution and suffering, yet hearing them speak of their hope in our faithful God.”
The student travelers received academic credit for the experience, which satisfies a course requirement, but each student raised their own funds for the trip.
Additional adventures on the trip included the opportunity to minister alongside an Assemblies of God World Mission (AGWM) missionary family in Turkey, visit historic biblical locations such as Ephesus, Laodicea, and Pergamum, and they enjoyed a little down time on the beach.