He Used to Lead Churches in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Now He Waxes Floors and Mentors Immigrant Ministry Leaders in His Spare Time
Nobody naps on Saturdays in the Gatera family.
If anyone has a right to, it’s Jean Pierre Gatera. Most weekdays the 43-year-old drives his wife, Appoline, to her tomato-packing job in Minneapolis at 6:30 a.m. Then he sends their kids—Joel, 15, Emmanuela, 12, and Deborah, 8—off to school and does a few hours of work for his degree, a master’s in leadership from Bethel University. He preps some rice and meat for dinner, since Appoline is usually exhausted when she gets home. Then, at 4:20 p.m., he leaves for work: waxing floors for a janitorial company until 1 a.m. He sleeps about four hours a night.
But if he’s fatigued on a Saturday afternoon in July, Jean Pierre does not show it. He and the kids pile into the family van and one of them says a prayer for safety before heading to the Hosmer Library, just south of downtown Minneapolis. He leaves them at the stately, hydrangea-framed historic building to kill a few hours while he drives to Jonathan House, a ministry in neighboring Saint Paul where immigrants seeking asylum can stay for up to six months while they find their feet.
Jean Pierre stands waiting at the door of the small, forgettable white structure, unornamented except for some gray shutters. He is about 20 minutes late for a 1 p.m. appointment with Gabriel Wilson, an immigrant from Liberia. But Wilson is still asleep. He works nights too.
Asylum seekers like Wilson have almost no safety net; they are not eligible for welfare cash assistance or other government benefits. Which is why Jean Pierre is here today, to see to it that Wilson never needs a net.
Still groggy, Wilson shows Jean Pierre into the front room, where they review several goals they’ve set together for Wilson: get a driver’s license, find a better job, and save up some money. Goal setting is crucial, Jean Pierre says, so that when Good Samaritans do offer help, they can just “push you along the track.”
In Liberia, Wilson drove trucks. America faces a shortage of truck drivers in the era of online retail, but Wilson can’t get one of those higher-paying jobs until he takes a five-week, $6,000 class for his commercial driver’s license. For now, though, he still needs a basic driver’s license to get to other jobs and job interviews—like one this week with FedEx. Jean Pierre asks Wilson how he plans to get to the interview. Wilson, who only has his driver’s permit, sheepishly admits it would be at least 45 minutes by bus but only 15 in his car. “Ok, so 45 minutes then,” Jean Pierre decrees, a not-so-subtle warning to play by the rules.
When Wilson gets home from work each morning—he, too, waxes floors—he showers and collapses. Then his phone blows up with messages from family back in Africa, accusing him of being ungrateful and not sending enough cash back home.
Jean Pierre tells him a Swahili saying: “If you can’t stand, you can’t dance.” They can ask you for whatever they want, but you have to establish yourself first, he says. A sign on the wall in the Jonathan House shouts encouragement in all capital letters: “Take pride in how far you have come and have faith in how far you can go!”
Jean Pierre’s face might as well be on the sign, the admonition wrapped in a speech bubble. On September 11, 2016, he left Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, where he had lived for 20 years and worked his way up to serve for a decade as chairman over a network of dozens of churches. From the soaring heat of Kakuma, at one time the world’s largest refugee camp, Jean Pierre and his family arrived on a pleasant late-summer day in Minneapolis, wearing layers of clothes because it was the easiest way to bring them. It was the second time in his life he would start over from scratch in a land that was not his own.
Jean Pierre quietly began rebuilding life in Minneapolis with his family, learning to drive and working his night job. Ordained in Kenya by the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Jean Pierre does not lead a church but still uses the title of “pastor” in all correspondence. Everyone seems to address him that way, even his own pastor, because Jean Pierre spends every spare moment doing exactly what he did in Kakuma: exhorting refugee leaders and refugee churches that they are too rich to live stuck in some helpless-immigrant narrative.
It’s hard to imagine the man running out of steam. When Jean Pierre speaks, he sometimes snaps his fingers to make a point. He believes that in any environment, God has already supplied everything necessary to survive. “You need only to identify these resources,” he says. “When you share what you have, it will attract other sources. If you don’t use your gift to shine, then nobody will come for it.
“If you sit down, you will lose everything,” he says, wiping his hands for emphasis. “Wasted time.”
As someone who built a ministry career in one of the world’s most desperate places while waiting two decades for the UN to decide his fate, Jean Pierre is especially annoyed that anyone would see him as just sitting, waiting for help.
The family did receive assistance during their first three months in America, as many refugees do. But Jean Pierre is still bothered by one particular moment during the resettlement journey: A hotel manager offered the family some leftovers from the kitchen, assuming they didn’t have the ability to pay for food.
“There is this idea [among Americans] that being a refugee is begging,” he says. “I want to grab that idea from them.”
Jean Pierre was born in Rwanda in 1975. In 1994, while he was 19 and away at school in another province, his country exploded in violence as Hutu soldiers and civilians massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women, and children and re-ignited a simmering civil war. Jean Pierre’s parents fled the genocide, unable to send word to him. He wandered both geographically and spiritually, with no possessions or documentation, traveling mostly alone in a region beset by conflict.
After checking a refugee camp for his family, Jean Pierre was jailed by Rwandan authorities who assumed him a rebel. At one point he fled on foot from violence in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, walking more than 180 miles in a week out of Rwanda and eventually landing in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At another point, when Jean Pierre was at a refugee camp in Tanzania, the government began forcibly removing refugees. He hid in the bush as officials hunted them like animals.
Jean Pierre crossed into Kenya after a 300-mile walk, during which he subsisted on water, salt, and sugar that he’d gotten from the Tanzanian camp and edible plants found along the way. In Nairobi, he learned about Kakuma and was able to get there in 1998.
Officials strategically chose to locate Kakuma in remote northwest Kenya, close to the border of South Sudan—a country which alone has produced 2.4 million refugees. The camp has no walls, and inhabitants can move freely in and out until curfew, but pervasive banditry in the wilderness outside the camp has turned the region into Kenya’s Wild West. It is consistently windy, dangerously dusty, and always hot.
When Jean Pierre arrived at Kakuma, he lacked documentation, which made it difficult to qualify for UN rations. He was taken in by a church leader who, at a revival meeting one evening, shared his testimony. The leader had been left for dead in a mass grave and was rescued by passers-by.
“He shared his story, then I realized my problems were not big,” says Jean Pierre, who responded to an altar call after that. He marks that night as a major shift in his perspective—from negative to positive, from hopeless to hopeful. He says it was then that God became real for him.
Jean Pierre started high school in the camp at age 25 and got heavily involved in his church, which provided him food and shelter until he received official refugee documents. (“I did not sit down,” he says.) He met his future wife, Appoline, who had also fled Rwanda. She attended his school and also sang in his church choir. They were married in 2001, the year Jean Pierre obtained his papers, and lived together in Kakuma for the next 15 years.
It’s not unusual to spend long periods of time in a refugee camp. Most refugee-producing African conflicts have been going on for 20 years or more, and estimates on the average length of stay in a camp vary from 9 to 25 years or more. World Bank experts say that as of the end of 2015, half the world’s refugees had been in exile for four years or more.
Which is why refugees often struggle deeply with identity issues. Living in Kakuma didn’t make Jean Pierre Kenyan, but he had nowhere else to go. In Kakuma he settled into something resembling a normal routine. Along with 75,000 other people in the camp at the time, however, he and Appoline also lived in constant tension: putting together a life while waiting for government officials to decide when and where their next life would begin.
“The people there are stuck,” says Tom Albinson, president of the Minnesota-based International Association for Refugees (IAFR). “They’re in a space; they’re not in a place.” Jean Pierre, for his part, had resigned himself to the idea that his family of five might never get out.
Kakuma, like other refugee camps, has structurally evolved as a result of such long stays. Families might live in tents but might also have a home with mud walls, patched over time. The UN distributes corrugated metal sheets for use in construction, but refugees must make their own mud bricks.
A mini-economy has emerged as Kakuma has sprawled (walking across the camp could take two or three hours). Residents use cell phones to spend and bank money through Kenya’s mobile transfer system, called M-Pesa. Hotels have popped up. Residents congregate in bars and coffee shops as they would anywhere else. In other words, camps like Kakuma that were originally constructed to be impermanent are becoming quite the opposite.