Brian Hickey ’12 returned home to Western Springs, IL, from North Africa earlier this month. The Fenwick and Valpo alumnus reflected on his past four months teaching refugee children in Djibouti:
December 28, 2017
Although there is no evidence of Christmas in Djibouti, our community was able to celebrate and reflect on the Word becoming flesh. After living in the birthplace of Jesus for a year, Christmas will never quite be the same. There is a power the mind can hardly comprehend in experiencing where love came down in the form of a baby boy in a place that animals feed. In a few days, I also hope you get to celebrate the gift of life we have been given in living another year in this world.
It is easy to constantly have the difficult moments or stories at the forefront of my mind when speaking or writing about my experiences in the Middle East and Africa. However, there are also moments of joy and triumph amidst many personal challenges or communal problems that come living in an underdeveloped country. In the spirit of light coming into the world at Christmas to overcome darkness, I will highlight a few of these moments from the past four months.
Saturday Morning Soccer
It rarely rains in Djibouti. However, when it does it usually pours for a short amount of time and produces huge pools of water and minor flooding due to a nonexistent sewage system. This can cause frustration and annoyance. It poured briefly one Saturday while I was serving breakfast to our boys at Caritas. On Saturday mornings, we bring about 40 of the boys to an open area to play soccer.
The “field” turned into a slippery mess of rainwater, mud and cement. This only enhanced the fun as we slipped and muddied ourselves for a couple hours. All the boys were able to laugh at themselves and each other. It didn’t matter that we do not play on a real field, have proper equipment or are competing for a prize. We had one another.
5th Grade Mohamed
Mohamed is a new student at the school this year. When school began in September, he knew only a few English words. He soon became overwhelmed because everyone in the class was way ahead of him and he would usually sit in class all day staring off into space and not doing anything. Honestly, I sometimes wondered how long he would stay in the school. You would never guess this is the same student I have in my class today.
I’m not sure if I said something that gave him a spark or something else clicked for him, but Mohamed has become the hardest working student in the class. He is always trying to understand what we read or work on in class. Whenever he comes to ask me a question and subsequently understands, a giant smile comes across his face as he gives me a fist pump.
This smile and proclamation of understanding is another moment of joy that sticks with me. Mohamed also enjoys testing me with written Arabic words as I continue to try to understand the language. I believe most people, especially kids, are not “bad” or “dumb” but just need someone to believe in them.
Several times per week, I enjoy going for a run in the morning. There is a small stretch of sand along the sea on my running route. Many of the street children sleep on this stretch of sand along with other homeless people. It is obviously striking to see these boys waking up and wandering the streets before going to Caritas.
Often times as I run, I’ll hear the boys shout in my direction off the road. They love telling me at Caritas that they saw me running as well. The moments of great joy are when they come and run barefoot beside me for a distance. Many people driving or walking give a funny look to a street kid and a white westerner running together. However, they do not understand our relationship. This is always my favorite part of my day.
As you [may] know, last year I lived and worked in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Even more than my time in South Africa and Zambia, Bethlehem will always feel like home because it was my first full-time job and I built many close relationships. Three weeks ago, I had tremendous sorrow as old neighbors, close friends and former students felt neglect and betrayal due to our country’s announcement about Jerusalem. No matter one’s opinion about the announcement, the consequences are real for all those I came to love in Palestine. I could hardly believe my eyes as I saw a video, directly outside my old apartment, of the aftermath of a truck coming into Palestinian territory and mowing down residents before crashing into another car.
All the students I was able to communicate with in wake of the announcement and initial protests were certain that the 3rd Intifada [Palestinian uprising] is imminent. They feel that they will be even more forgotten by the rest of the world and lose the few opportunities they have. A family, who was always generous in taking care of me, is in danger of shutting down their restaurant (next to the separation wall) for an extended time due to constant protests. Other friends will be negatively impacted by what the announcement will do to the tourism industry in Bethlehem. Please pray for peace and that our leaders are cognizant of our neglected Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem as well as all Palestinians.
Finally, as the New Year commences I invite you to seek joy in every situation. Like the day of muddy morning soccer, forget what you don’t have and focus on what you do and the opportunities in front of you. Just as Mohamed has done, stop thinking about what you cannot do and chase the dream or opportunity you believe is too difficult or inconvenient. Just as I am energized by running with migrants and refugees, seek out a marginalized person or people group to invest financially or with your attention and time. This will bring you more energy or joy than simply investing in yourself.
A baby born, on the run from violence, in the Middle East has brought more meaning and light in my life (and hopefully yours) than I could have imagined. That light overcomes complacency or darkness in our lives and leads us to our final destination. Invest in that relationship this year whether it is investigating the doubts you have or spending more time with Him.
February 13, 2018
For as long as I can remember, I always eagerly anticipated springtime and the weather getting warmer at this time of year. Perhaps, it was just looking forward to March Madness, high school tennis season or our annual Spring Break trip in college. I am sure you are looking forward to getting rid of the snow and embracing warmer weather and sunshine. In Djibouti, the weather is getting to that point in the afternoon when you cannot be outside for more than five to 10 minutes before beginning to sweat.
The days can certainly feel long, but, as usual, the weeks and months have been going fast. Spring is almost here! The following are a few happenings/highlights since my last update.
In early January, we loaded up a few buses and took the Caritas boys to a nearby beach (away from the beach where many of them sleep). We spent most of the day on the beach playing soccer, throwing a football, blasting music and swimming in the sea. We also enjoyed lunch and snacks. At the end of our day at the beach, the boys received Christmas gifts consisting of shoes/sandals, a shirt, pants and some candy. This was the only Christmas gift that they received. I know this day will most likely be the highlight of the year for each of the boys. It was also probably my favorite day thus far in Djibouti.
As you can imagine, there are many stories from Caritas that stick with me. Rhakeem, only about four or five years younger than me, was a bit slow and off when I first met him. He would always seem to be just staring off into space, and he kept a small notebook with the names of the people at Caritas to remember. Sometimes, he would come up to me and say (in broken English) that his head was banging. Younger boys, not knowing any better, would say that he is crazy.
Rhakeem could be considered an ‘economic migrant’ when he fled desperate conditions in Ethiopia. Soon after, Rhakeem got in contact with a human smuggler that would bring him by boat to Yemen. Due to the instability and civil war in the country, many African migrants and refugees take the risk to go through Yemen in hope for greater opportunities in neighboring countries. They certainly do not know the true dangers that await in the war-torn country and are given deceitful assurances by the smugglers.
Although all the details are not known, when Rhakeem arrived by boat to Yemen he was held hostage possibly by smugglers or another group in the country. He was raped and struck in the head by an AK-47. Rhakeem was rescued by an aid organization and brought back to Djibouti, but not without certain brain damage and emotional trauma from the experience. Somehow, he made it to Caritas. Early last month, he was brought back to Ethiopia by the international migration force in Africa to hopefully receive the treatment he desperately needs. I always enjoyed interacting with Rhakeem. As with many here, it is frustrating and frightening to think about his needs and not knowing what his future holds.
Last month, Caritas hosted the inaugural “All Brothers and Sisters 5K Race.” When the idea came up for something like this in early October, I was skeptical that it would come to fruition because events like this do not typically occur in Djibouti. We brought the event to the proper authorities for permission and it took them a month to respond to approve the race. Three days before the race was to occur, the local authorities said we had to postpone because the president had a meeting the same morning. The government certainly does not like to make things easy for outsiders, especially when a Christian organization is seeking cooperation with an event.
Nonetheless, the race was rescheduled for the following Friday and we had over 250 people come, including several foreign militaries, kids from my school and others, a running team from Caritas, and ex-pats from NGOs and embassies. The event focused on bringing everyone together from Christians and Muslims to locals and foreigners. There is often tension and prejudice toward different groups in Djibouti such as Christians being referred to as ‘criminals’ or ‘pigs.’ It was a great event to experience these different people groups coming together in the name of Caritas.
As winter turns to spring, we also welcome the season leading to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Two thousand years later, we exalt and give our lives to a man given a criminal’s death on a cross. Of course, this was not just ‘a man,’ and the Roman capital punishment was only a tool to magnify what our Heavenly Father did to destroy death. I am not sure it can be fully comprehended that the creator of the universe did this for you and me to have abundant life at the present moment in the year 2018.
It is so easy to only stay focused on our own concerns, comfort, present or future. I know I can become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of severe poverty, despair or violence in the region that it is easy to just freeze and want to give up. However, this is when the knowledge of Christ comes to the forefront of my mind and the acknowledgment of the power that lives within me becomes fully alive. We are wasting our time if we are not making an impact for Christ wherever we are planted.
Whether working at a hedge fund or a faraway country, realize the space around you is to be used to bring Heaven unto earth. Look to the things that are above our culture and situation. Focus on what transcends current circumstances and remember that our victory has already been won. There is nothing left to claim or prove that can be greater than what has already been obtained.
April 10, 2018
Almost eight months ago, I set off to a country I did not know much about except that it was surrounded by war-torn countries: Somalia and Yemen. I certainly won’t forget walking off the airplane in Djibouti in the middle of the night and feeling like I’ve entered a sauna. Djibouti has had unique challenges and a culture distinct from the other countries where I’ve served. The days sometimes felt long, but the months went by quickly. In a few days, I will begin the 36-hour travel back to Chicago.
I’ve seen the effects of war and hunger, hopelessness and despair, but I’ve also seen sacrificial love in people providing for one another. I’ve seen differences in nationalities or religion transcended by a desire to counter suffering. I’ve seen the power of friendships in walking through whatever comes one’s way in life. I’ve seen joy in what looks like massive struggle. The following is what has stuck with me since my last update.
Walks of Life
Throughout my time in Djibouti, I’ve been fortunate to encounter people from various walks of life. I’ve met a team of people that have spent time in the some of the worst humanitarian situations in our lifetime. I heard firsthand accounts of ISIS in Mosul, blown-out cities in Syria, deep despair in South Sudan, and death of children in Yemen. I’ve met Yemeni and Somali refugees trudging through their new situations after having their lives uprooted by violence and war.
While I’ve formed friendships with members of the military from several countries, I also am friendly with people who sleep on cardboard during the night and see me when they begin their day on the street. I’ve truly experienced that as iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens another with one deep friendship I’ve had in Djibouti. I’ve walked with boys trying to survive life on their own on the streets of a foreign country.
Life Lost, Saved and Found
Last month, we received word that a 1st grader at our school had suddenly died. The boy had a high fever and his parents took him to a hospital. The hospital injected him with medication before being directed to another hospital. The next hospital also injected him with medication and it is believed the mixed injections probably killed him. Obviously, it was pretty shocking that a healthy young boy would suddenly die within a couple days of being sick. Many of the people here attributed the death to simply being “God’s (Allah) will.” They do not know that the God we know brings abundant life and is not a thief in taking the presence of this young boy from his family, friends, and school.
In addition to the work with the boys at Caritas, there is also a small medical clinic at the facility for the poor, migrants and refugees. Recently, a foreign pediatrician from one of the militaries was at the clinic for the day. A Somali woman came in to seek sustenance for her baby. The pediatrician checked on a cleft on the baby’s face and stated that the baby had to get to the local hospital immediately. While the woman was hesitant to go, it was determined that if the baby did not get treatment that day she would probably die. Thankfully, the child received the necessary treatment to keep her alive.
Over the past few months, there has been a local addition to our Christian community. A Djiboutian police officer, Ayele, in his late 20s has been volunteering at Caritas and been around our compound quite a bit. He comes from a Muslim background (as do nearly all Djiboutians) but has come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and was first attracted to Christianity due to our services to the poor and vulnerable. There is certainly animosity toward Christians in Djibouti so, especially as a government employee, Ayele will face persecution in his decision to follow Christ. He will be baptized in a few weeks. Ayele’s story makes all the difficult conditions and challenges in Djibouti worth it.
At the beginning of August, I will continue my mission in a different capacity than Bethlehem and Djibouti. I will be attending the University of Notre Dame to study Global Affairs with a specialization for two years. I could not be more excited to join 35-40 talented students from around the world at Notre Dame. We will be interacting with policy influencers such as former White House chiefs of staff, CIA directors and heads of states. It will certainly be a change to go from the Middle East and North Africa to a place I’m quite familiar with in ND, but I’m eager for a challenging and rewarding experience in preparing to further impact the world for the Kingdom of God.
It is difficult to find the right words to finish out this last update. The last few years have left me shaking my head in wonder of how I’ve been able to have these life experiences I could never have even imagined several years ago. Yet, I realize this all blossomed from my knees in Stellenbosch, South Africa, as I said “yes” to God to take me where my trust is without borders.
The day after Easter I shared the story of Jesus from start to finish to my class as I further explained why we did not have school on Easter Sunday. I received numerous questions from my Muslim students and the class was as quiet as it has been since the school year began. I could tell it had a major effect on at least two Muslim boys in the class. One of them stared off into the distance for five to 10 minutes after asking if we will meet Jesus in Heaven if we make it. Another boy was asking me more questions the next day.
I know the Gospel shook those in my class to their core in hearing, for the first time, the radical way God seeks to have a relationship with us. If you had the cure for cancer would you not want to tell everyone about it? Well, we have the cure to laying down all bitterness, ego, pride and shame to live life abundantly and proclaim the good news of the empty tomb. We know the cure for death and have the ability to live forever. We have the opportunity to make decisions to impact lives that will echo into eternity.
Thank you for all your support and encouragement in many capacities over the past few years. As I’ve written, this could not have been possible alone.
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20