Ugandan Asylum Seeker Finds a Church Home in Brussels
by Jon Ritner
For a few months, I had noticed a new face on the fringes of our Well/Serve the City community. Bits and pieces of his story made their way to me from others in our circle. “I think he is a refugee from somewhere in Africa,” “I heard he boxes at a local gym”, “I think he volunteers with us on Wednesday nights.”
When I heard that our children’s ministry leader from The Well had invited this young man to volunteer with him, I finally had a chance to make a personal connection.
“Wayne, thank you for helping with our kids this morning. We love having you as part of our church family. “
“I am so glad to be here,” he replied. “My friends here are my family.”
There was a peculiar mix of sadness and joy in the way he responded that led me to believe that he needed to share his story with someone.
Wayne grew up in Uganda, as the grandson of a Muslim Imam who served as a minister in the government of the dictator, Idi Amin. You might remember Forest Whitaker portraying Amin’s life and ruthless dictatorship in the 2006 biopic, The Last King of Scotland. When Wayne’s father was a teen, he met and fell in love with a local Christian woman and became a Christian himself.
Over the years, Wayne’s grandfather became more opposed to the Christian practices of his mother and father and eventually banished them from the family. He even later refused to visit his own ailing wife in the hospital because she had chosen to remain in communication with her son and daughter-in-law.
Wayne remembers reaching out over and over to his grandfather as a teen, only to finally have him chase him with a knife and tell him to never step foot in his house again. “If I had a gun, you would be dead right now!” His grandfather yelled.
Wayne’s parents came into possession of some property and began leasing it to the government for use by the army. Over time, the rent checks ceased and his father was forced to confront the government about the payments. After a year of broken promises and unjust court hearings, Wayne’s father was told to bring the original deed to the courthouse for a final ruling. That day, the judge ordered a recess for lunch and Wayne and his father got in their car to go find a place to eat.
On the way, a van pulled in front of their vehicle and three men jumped out, one carrying an AK-47. Wayne’s father attempted to reverse the car to escape as the man began shooting. Wayne was shot in the leg and then knocked unconscious as the car reversed at full speed into a building. Four days later in a hospital, he woke up in a hospital to his mother’s words, “We lost him.”
Within a year of his father’s murder, government officials began harassing his mother about the same property, asking her to sign papers to officially release any ownership over the building. His mother repeatedly refused to sign, and told the officials that she wanted nothing to do with the building that led to her husband’s death. She was in effect surrendering the office space, but they demanded to have the deed signed over by her.
On one occasion, police were called to escort the officials out of her house, but they did not intervene, so she took matters into her own hands. She offered them tea, boiled a pot of water, and proceeded to throw it on the officials in an act of desperation.
Months later, while Wayne was off at his first year of university, he received a call from the woman who often cleaned his house telling him he needed to return home immediately. Men had broken into the house and assaulted his mother and sister while the housekeeper hid in a closet upstairs. By the time Wayne arrived at the hospital, his Uncle informed him that they had both been pronounced dead.
Wayne, just 19 at the time, spent months in despair and grief at the loss of his entire immediate family in a span of 18 months. A friend, Jonah, and his family reached out to Wayne and took him in as their own son. Jonah stood watch by Wayne many nights to make sure he did not take his life, as he wanted to do. They offered to pay for Wayne’s university and support him financially until he was on his own after graduation.
Sadly, Jonah’s father himself had ongoing issues with the government and soon felt it was necessary for him to move his family away from the corruption of Uganda. He began the process of seeking political asylum in the US, and included Wayne as part of his family in the process.
When Wayne’s passport was submitted to the Ugandan foreign affairs office along with the rest of the family, it raised flags. Eventually, Jonah’s family was given permission to immigrate to the US, but Wayne’s passport was not returned to him, nor was a reason given for its revocation. Wayne found himself alone again, feeling more unsafe than ever before. He decided it was time for him to leave his home country by any means necessary.
Wayne took the money his new family had given him and left on a bus for Kenya. One night in a local pub while watching a football match, he struck up a conversation with a man at the bar. They shared stories and watched the game together. The next night they sat together again and talked as well.
Soon the man, who had initially claimed to be an architect, revealed to Wayne his true profession. He was a smuggler, trafficking humans across borders into countries where they wanted to live, but could not legally immigrate. He had pieced together enough of Wayne’s story to know that Wayne needed asylum and protection in a more stable country. He quoted Wayne prices to get into the UK, Germany, France, but said the US was too difficult. The cheapest option was Belgium, where he could get Wayne in on a false UK passport for €3,500.
Eventually, Wayne accepted the offer and began a journey across Africa with this man that eventually led to a flight from South Africa to Brussels and a successful entry through immigration control. Wayne paid the man and returned the false passport as they shared a celebratory beer together. The man told Wayne how the asylum seeking process was run in Europe, paid for his cab to a local center for refugees, and wished him luck.
In May of last year (2013), Wayne walked up to the gate of Petite Chateau and asked the guard for help. He spent the next two weeks making the necessary governmental appointments, filling out endless forms, and trying to survive in the center amongst the other 850 asylum seekers. He was finally assigned a room in one of the short term government run centers and moved his few belongings over to await his asylum hearing.
Five days later, a group of Serve the City volunteers came into the lounge where he was sitting and invited him to play Jenga with them. That first contact led to many more and eventually, five months later, Wayne spent the day worshipping at The Well, volunteering with our kids in Sunday school class and sitting on my couch watching NFL games, eating homemade chili, and recounting his life story.
It has been a joy to journey alongside Wayne for the past year and see him grow in his faith in God's provision. Sadly, Wayne's application for asylum has been denied several times and he is currently trying to track down death certificates and further documentation to support his claims. Pray for meaningful employment for Wayne so he can pay for rent and food while he continues to navigate the difficult waters of an asylum seeker. Pray too, that others around him may be touched and influenced by his faith journey.
After pastoring in Williamsburg, VA for 10 years, Jon now serves in Brussels, Belgium as a Pastor at The Well and as a Project Leader with Serve the City. Jon grew up in the suburbs of New York City and attended The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He and his wife, Krystyn, met while at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. They have been married 12 years and have two children.