The white gunnysack keeps slipping out of my hands. My arms feel like wet noodles in this Bangkok heat and humidity.
It feels like I’m carrying 70 pounds of rice, but it’s really just 10 – plus spices, cookies, canned meat and an odd assortment of extras from the “world hunger food closet” at Calvary Baptist Church in Bangkok.
A group of us – including North Carolinian and International Mission Board missionary Carrie Chappell are taking the food to a refugee family. With the help of Southern Baptist World Hunger Funds, Calvary Baptist established a food closet supplied with a few comfort foods from various countries.
Volunteers from the congregation distribute the food during their free time.
“We decided early on that we didn’t want to have the refugees come and stand in a distribution line,” says Chappell, whose husband, Martin, was the associate pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Elizabeth City, N.C., from 1991 to 1999.
“We wanted to really connect one-to-one,” she adds. “We want to have personal contact and meet each family in their home.”
Today, the Chappell family still maintains a close relationship with the Chowan Baptist Association and its many churches. Chappell says she hopes this story will educate others on the needs of the refugees they work with in Bangkok.
IMB missionary Carrie Chappell shops in the local market for fresh fruits and vegetables to take to Bangkok’s International Detention Center. Southern Baptist World Hunger Food Funds provide a special gift bag for Christians to take to refugees and asylum seekers in the detention center.
Relationships with the refugees are a key part of their ministry.
“Jesus is so compassionate that we want to share His compassion with others,” she explains. “This often starts with a bag of food and a listening ear. They just want someone to talk to … someone to share their stories with. They want to know that somebody cares about them.”
While walking the backstreets of Bangkok, Chappell spies one member of the family we are looking for – a smiling William* – waving to us. The man quickly invites us out of the scorching sun and into the oven he calls home.
This concrete block room is no bigger than a child’s bedroom in most American homes, yet a family of five lives here. It isn’t quite what you expect when you think of refugee life.
The iconic image of refugees is rows of white tents in a sprawling emergency camp, not a dingy apartment in a mega-city. But the reality is only one-third of the world’s 15.4 million refugees live in camps. Like most of the world’s population, refugees have steadily moved into cities and towns. Urban refugees are among the fastest-growing population segment globally.
Thousands of people like William and his family live in Bangkok, where the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has an office. They estimate that 90 people seek asylum each month in Thailand, fleeing some form of persecution or war.
William lifts his chin to show us a shiny scar from a knife wound. His 13-year-old son peels back his shirtsleeve to reveal a scar from a bullet. They’ve been threatened for being Catholic. The family fled to Bangkok in the hopes of not only safety but for a better future. What they didn’t know was that urban refugees often face dangers and hardships those in the traditional camps never experience.
Thailand is one of the few countries that does not honor the international human rights laws protecting those who flee persecution and seek asylum outside of traditional camps.
Instead, urban refugees are considered illegal migrants.
William explains they knew it would be difficult to leave everything behind in the South Asian country where they once lived – the family business, their home, dishes, clothes, friends and family — but no one warned them about the isolation, depression, fear and hunger that most suffer when seeking asylum, especially outside of the large refugee camps.
William says his family lives in constant fear of being arrested, so they stay in the small cement-block room they rent.
In an urban environment, the UNHCR cannot always provide services, protection or support as easily as it can in a camp. Filling this gap is the reason our group is traipsing around Bangkok carrying a gunnysack of food. Chappell explains that asylum seekers are not allowed to work or earn money. Once the UN has granted them refugee status, they receive a small stipend for rent until they leave for their new host country or are repatriated to their old one.
Navigating through the UN paperwork can take years. In the meantime, families like William’s struggle to survive. For the first time in their lives, these doctors, bankers, accountants and business owners turn to begging to feed their families.
Calvary Baptist realized the urban refugees’ needs were an opportunity to minister to “the nations” in their own backyard.
‘That’s how I met Jesus’
Providing social interaction is one reason Chappell and church members from Calvary visit refugees’ homes. She invites the family to church, mentioning several families attend a small group in their language.
Calvary’s church has many small groups studying the Bible and offering each other support in language groups from Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Some of the small group leaders are trained pastors who are also refugees.
For believers, Calvary’s ministry provides a safe place to worship their Savior. For those who have never heard, the church introduces them to the gospel.
When it’s time for us to go, no one wants the visit to end.
Our new friends walk with us to the main road and promise to drop by Calvary on Sunday.
Back at the church, we meet a group of refugees sweeping the parking lot and raking leaves. They do this every week as a way to say thank you and serve the Lord. A 19-year-old who was baptized a few weeks ago asks if we have just come back from visitation. I give a tired nod and his smile grows wide.
“Someone came to our house,” he says. “That’s how I met Jesus.”