Jean was born in 1993 in Burundi, East Africa. He is of the Hutu tribe of peoples. When civil war broke in Rwanda and Burundi, Jean’s family fled south as refugees to a camp in their neighbouring country of Tanzania. Jean was just a young child when they left, and it wasn’t without casualty. Jean’s father was one of the 300,000 killed in Burundi, 800,000 in Rwanda. Jean’s family and extended family are of Muslim background. Life didn’t get any easier living as refugees in Tanzania.
Jean’s mother remarried. His stepfather was a doctor in the camp; through his work he contracted AIDS. As Jean explains, “There is no hope in a refugee camp.” Camps are lawless, corrupt places, overcrowded by displaced, hopeless people. Recruitment of soldiers to return to the Burundian civil war began. The war continued until 2005. Refusal to accept recruitment meant death. Local Tanzanian authorities were of no protection. They only looked to profit from the misfortunes of vulnerable refugees in their camp. Jean’s family managed to escape, this time further south and to the east – again to a refugee camp called Dzaleka in Malawi. The children traveled first through Tanzania to avoid suspicion and reduce highway bribery fees. Jean was together with his older brother, young sister, and later reunited with his mother, stepfather, and aunts.
It was near the end of his mother’s life when she was tormented by voices; evil spirits possessed Jean’s mother. She shared in her husband’s disease, AIDS. Her possession was rooted in an evil family practice of consulting with the dead. At first Malawian pastors came to pray over her, but her fits were so violent and terrifying that everyone except her family left her alone. She had a moment of lucidity before her death. Jean and his brother had their chance to say goodbye. Jean now thanks God for that moment, but at the time he wanted nothing to do with pastors who spoke victory from the platform yet so easily accepted defeat out of sight from their adoring crowds.
Jean and his brother were orphans. Mother and father dead, they weren’t interested in their stepfather’s house rules; he kicked them out to live on the streets. Jean was 11 and his brother 13 years old. God had not left them alone. The boys found a widowed lady who took them in, and they excelled in their schoolwork. Against odds, Jean was selected to attend Dowa Secondary School. This is where he accepted Jesus as his LORD. At first he met a clan of Jehovah Witnesses, teaching in the refugee camps that one should not sing the national anthem, that it was a form of idolatry. This teaching lined up with Jean’s Muslim background, that God is one, so he followed it.
It was at a school assembly, Jean was positioned in the front row and they were singing the Malawian national anthem, everyone except for Jean. Jean’s refusal to sing was noticed and he was sent to meet the school’s headmaster. He was sure that he would be expelled. The boy who went into the headmaster’s office before him was in fact expelled from the school. Expulsion would remove the last reason for hope – Jean and his brother would return to Burundi, to any family left after a decade of war to live a completely different story. But that wasn’t God’s story for the boys’ lives. The headmaster called Jean in. He asked him why he didn’t sing. Jean explained. The headmaster relaxed, and asked Jean if he’d heard of Jesus. Jean had, but as the headmaster went on to share the Good News of Christ, Jean realized he didn’t know this Jesus. The headmaster then told Jean, “You are my friend.”
One statement rocked Jean’s world. One unexpected, uncharacteristic turn of grace from a man who had every authority to end Jean’s future hopes. Instead, the man gave Jean more hope – he gave an answer for the hope already resident inside him. The headmaster honoured Jesus Christ as his head, and in that meeting Jean turned his life over to this same Christ and Saviour. Jean accepted Jesus as his LORD.
There is more to Jean’s story, but you should ask him yourself. Ask him about the Malawi national exams, the turn of circumstances that left him with the wrong country status, and the turn of God that righted that wrong. Ask Jean how he’s in Canada, and why he plans to return to the very camps in Africa that once held no hope for him. Ask him about the hopeless many, and his hope found in Jesus Christ.
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