Waves in the Desert

How can we help Afghan refugees?

By Arley Loewen

First wave of refugees: 1980s

  • from the Soviet Invasion

The Soviet invasion caused the first wave of Afghan refugees as millions flooded into Pakistan, Iran and India.

At the same time, Afghans began to resist the Soviets and Kabul government, which birthed the Afghan mujahideen (holy warriors). The U.S. saw an opportunity to oppose the Soviets by supporting the Afghan warriors. Islamic enthusiasts from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere, joined with the mujahideen in “short-term mission” service—an ideal chance for young radicals to practice jihad. Osama bin Laden was one such warrior, and he started the al-Qaeda Islamic party.

I had joined OM Canada with a calling to go where there was no church. In the fall of 1981, I joined a small team to serve among Afghan refugees in Pakistan and India. Janice (now my wife) came a year later (by the way, that’s where we met). Although there were a few secret believers in Afghanistan, we had no connection with anyone. We saw a handful of refugees come to faith in these early years.

Second wave of refugees: 1990s

  • from the mujahideen conflict

After years of bitter fighting, the Soviets finally withdrew in 1989. A few years later the Afghan communist regime fell to mujahideen rule. Now the various mujahideen factions turned on each other, fighting bitterly for control of the country. Many areas of Kabul were leveled to rubble. The conflict between the mujahideen parties and shelling of Kabul brought about a second wave of refugees. From these two waves of refugees, Afghans began to immigrate to Western countries.

Gradually more refugees, especially in India and Pakistan, came to faith. We lived in Toronto in the 1990s, where we worked among Persian newcomers. We worked with Afghan immigrants in the West and some refugees in Pakistan to start a media ministry for Afghanistan. Our aim has been to help Afghan believers reach their own people with the good news.

Third wave of refugees: 1996 onwards

  • from the Taliban

During the 1990s, thousands of young refugees in Pakistan studied in Islamic schools while their nation was devastated by this bloody conflict. They were Taliban (literally: students) who envisioned a purist Islamic state would bring peace to their land. In the spring and summer of 1996 this rag-tag band of young students swept across Afghanistan and marched into Kabul. In early September of that year they established their first “truly” Islamic state.

This led to a third wave of refugees.

We were in Pakistan during these years where we were part of a flourishing group of believers, refugees from Afghanistan and Iran.

For five years the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with their rigorous interpretation of Islamic law. Hundreds of Arab radicals (not Afghans) planned foreign terrorist attacks under the auspices of the Taliban regime.

Then came 9/11. The world changed. The U.S., along with coalition forces, bombed Taliban strongholds. In six short weeks the Taliban government collapsed. Hamid Karzai became the president of Afghanistan in December 2001. The psyche of the Afghan refugee in Pakistan transformed overnight, from despair to hope.

Millions of refugees return: 2002 onwards

Millions of refugees from Pakistan and Iran, as well as those who had settled in the West flooded back to Afghanistan.

Janice and I joined that flood, along with many of refugees, including believers. We lived in Afghanistan for four years, enjoying the freedom to work in a variety of development projects and to connect with followers of Jesus.

The country leaped forward in development. For the first time in Afghan history, the nation freely voted for their president. Excitement reigned. What freedom! Trades worked 24/7. New businesses popped up everywhere. Boys and girls laughed as they went to school. Civil society flourished in all areas: music, language clubs, sports, media networks and so much more.

Janice and I lived in Afghanistan for four years during the height of Afghan hope and development. Those were some of the most satisfying years of our ministry as we lived among and served the people whose language and culture we had learned.

Fourth wave of refugees: 2010 onwards

  • from everything

As the country prospered, dark clouds rose from within and beyond, from the horizons. Nepotism and corruption, along with too much Western money, birthed rot in government and other institutions.

The Taliban had been pushed out, but they fought back. At first, they initiated scattered acts of terrorism, but by 2010 we began to witness audacious suicide attacks and assassinations. In August 2010, the Taliban killed a team of eight international workers and two Afghans who were on their way home from a medical trip. In 2014, a series of daring attacks on NGOs, foreign workers and Afghan Christians shattered the notion of tranquility, especially for international families and believers, who began to leave Afghanistan.

When the crisis of ISIS broke out in Syria in 2014 and onwards, Afghan refugees joined the wave of Arab refugees flooding to Europe. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, declared an open welcome to refugees. Over a million flooded into Germany, Sweden and other countries in a few short years. Afghans who had experienced systemic discrimination as refugees in Iran joined this wave. This created a “refugee highway” through Turkey and Greece to Western Europe.

Churches and ministries in Europe magnanimously welcomed these refugees. This unexpected love drew many Muslims to learn more about Jesus and the Christian faith.

Janice and I have been part of many seminars and conferences for refugees in Europe and Asia. What a privilege it is to help young believers understand their new faith. True, this emerging church among Afghans is not without growing pains as well, but God is building his kingdom.

Fifth wave of refugees: today

  • from the Taliban, again

In all this conflict and trauma, nothing was more shocking than August 15, 2021. The American military wanted out of Afghanistan after their longest war in history and having spent billions. They negotiated with the Taliban, keeping the Afghan government at bay. As the Taliban blitzed across Afghanistan in 2021, no one could make sense of it. Their unexpected return, along with the collapse of the Afghan government, followed by the crazed airport evacuations, shook the entire world and left much of the Afghan world in utter dismay.

Yes, the Taliban see their victory as a blessing from God. And true, the war is over. Crime has decreased. Peace has come (for now). But at what price? Afghans have (almost) survived a winter of hunger and a shattered economy. Will girls after grade six really be able to go to school? Fear rules.

The world witnessed the chaos at the Kabul airport as Afghans scrambled for space on the planes. Thousands of evacuees are now settling in Western countries, but many are stranded in the Gulf Arab states and elsewhere. Other Afghans escaped the Taliban takeover and fled into Pakistan and Tajikistan on their own, from where they hope to be resettled in some Western country.

Call for help

  • Canada

Today, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are stranded all over the world from these waves of refugees. Some fled Afghanistan as believers. Many came to faith on the refugee trail, as they were uprooted and lost their social cohesion.

We have had the wonderful privilege of visiting and ministering among Afghan believers in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and many European countries in recent years. The European church has welcomed many of them. Today, Afghans, Iranians and Arabs are part of the Christian community in Europe.

It is now our turn here in Canada to step up to the plate. Last year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will welcome 40,000 vulnerable Afghans.

Afghan Christian refugees are vulnerable indeed—doubly vulnerable. They cannot return to Afghanistan. The non-European nations listed above do not allow the Afghans to integrate in their present country of asylum. At the same time, they face harassment from their own Muslim neighbours and family members, who themselves are refugees.

So, who will welcome and support these Afghan Christians?

We must help the household of faith. We need churches and groups of five or more to sponsor Afghan Christian refugees who are from the recent waves of refugees. Many are stranded in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states with no hope of ever being accepted as permanent residents there.

This need is urgent. The refugees have been left on their own long enough. Please contact the EMC office to see what steps your church should take to sponsor one or more Afghan Christian family units.

Arley and Janice Loewen have lived and worked among the people of Afghanistan since the early 1980s. Arley specializes in Persio-Afghan cultures, with an MA from Pakistan (1989) and a PhD from the University of Toronto (2000). The Loewens served in Pakistan for many years and then in Afghanistan for four years with their two teenage daughters. They now live in Blumenort, Man. They minister in Europe and elsewhere, teaching and training Afghan migrant believers with a passion to see Afghan believers become mature disciples and join vibrant communities of Jesus followers.

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