Here’s a story with a happy ending today – at least, I hope it’s happy. I pray it will remain so. You’ll see what I mean when you get to the end.
First, a little background: in 2002 a group of us, ex-pats and Swiss, established an independent protestant church in the Swiss Rhine Valley, to cater for the needs of the local English-speaking community which consisted mainly of people employed in multinational companies in the region and foreigners married to Swiss.
However, there were also two nearby accommodation centres for asylum-seekers, including many Africans. A number of these were Christians, and would come down the mountain to attend services, a walk of two hours downhill and three back uphill. When we realised this, those of us with cars began to ferry these people to and fro, for which they were very grateful, especially in the harsh winter months.
One day in 2004, a beautiful young African woman with the air of a princess in her traditional dress turned up, clutching her baby, beaming and smiling at us as if she hadn’t a care in the world, so happy to be among Christian brothers and sisters. She was French-speaking, from Rwanda, so it fell to me to act as her interpreter. She was called Joséphine.
We knew to be very wary in talking to these refugees about their private lives. A simple question like: “Are you married?” reduced one poor lady to a quivering wreck. She had witnessed her husband’s murder by machete-wielding thugs just a week previously.
Little by little, however, as Joséphine and I became friends, this lovely, smiling, twenty-two-year-old mother told me some of her story. I couldn’t probe or ask for clarification as she described what she had been through; she would suffer flashbacks, and that was something I wasn’t professionally equipped to deal with. I discovered that she and her husband had been forced to flee to a neighbouring country with their two little boys after their house was burned down in 2002.
This was just a brief respite, and early in 2004 they were obliged to flee for their lives again. Joséphine was heavily pregnant, and as they were sheltering in what was supposed to be a safe house, their pursuers started to break in. Her husband helped Joséphine to climb out through a window, then turned to pick up the children and pass them out to her, but he was too late. Both he and the children were taken captive. Joséphine was panic-stricken but she did the only sensible thing and ran for her life.
As night fell, and she could hear the soldiers searching for refugees and murdering those they found, she slipped into the crocodile-infested river, holding onto an overhanging tree till daybreak, in paralysed terror. Somehow she managed to escape, and her baby was born by the side of the road. Fortunately, she was taken in by missionaries who helped her and her little son – whom she named “Espoir” (Hope) – to seek asylum in Switzerland.
As soon as she arrived, Joséphine reported the disappearance of her husband and two boys so that the Red Cross could begin looking for them among the chaos of the African upheavals. At church, as we learned her story and befriended her, we prayed that her family would be found and reunited. Some of our members had contacts with missionaries in Africa, or had served as missionaries there, and they also made efforts to help.
Her life in the Refugee Centre was not easy. Many of the men pestered her, saying her husband must be dead or would have found someone else. Her little boy was given strange things to eat and drink – including alcohol and even drugs – and became sick. After hospitalisation, he recovered and finally Joséphine was moved out of the Centre and could share an apartment with another young woman.
And then one day came the wonderful news that her children had been found, safe and sound, living with a foster family in Cameroun. Her husband had managed to find them a safe place before having to flee yet again.
All this time, Joséphine had been involved in struggles with the Swiss authorities trying to convince them that her request for asylum had genuine grounds. Eventually she was granted asylum, and then she could start the application process to have her children returned to her. This finally came about in 2006 and Joséphine was allocated an apartment for herself and her three children, where they could try to start building a new, normal life together.
Everyone told Joséphine that there was no point in looking for her husband any more; he must be dead. The Red Cross had exhausted all avenues, and missionary contacts in Africa had also done everything in their power, but all in vain. Joséphine remained convinced that he was alive and that she would see him again one day. In the meantime, she devoted herself to bringing up her three boys and giving them a decent life in their new country.
Then, in 2010, the Red Cross in Cameroun received a request from a father for assistance in finding his missing children. It was Joséphine’s husband. The 2004 dossier was reopened, and the children traced. Joséphine was no longer living near our church, but one of the older ladies who had become like a surrogate mother to her brought her along one Sunday. Imagine the joy and jubilation as they announced the incredible news to us.
Red tape is notoriously tough to break through, and Swiss red tape is particularly difficult. Perseverance pays off, however, and finally this year Joséphine and her husband were reunited at Zürich airport.
I said that I believe this is a story with a happy ending. I do hope so. It will not be easy for this little family to make yet another new start; for this couple who have been separated for so long to adjust to living together again, and for the boys to accept a father they have never known or had forgotten. But from what I know of Joséphine and her children, what I have heard of her husband, and with God’s grace they have a very good chance of success. God bless them and keep them.