What Climbing Kilimanjaro Taught Me About Refugees

On March 8, 2016, International Women’s Day, I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. At an altitude of nearly 20,000 feet, it’s the highest peak on the African continent, and the tallest free standing mountain in the world.

he fifteen of us who climbed had a single goal: to raise awareness and funds for women suffering in warzones. In conflict regions throughout the world women face extreme poverty, gender-based violence, trauma from loss and grief, and a level of vulnerability and hopelessness that leads to despair. 

But the organization with which we climbed—One Million Thumbprints—partners with grassroots organizations offering vulnerable women emergency food relief and shelter, trauma counseling, health care, education for their kids, and long-term economic empowerment projects. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing any of us had ever done. But just before the climb we visited women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were victims of brutal rape used as a weapon of war. Their stories compelled us to climb and to drawn world attention to their plight.

Everyday at 6am, when we crawled out of our tents exhausted and cold, and looked up at that mountain, we thought, No way! There is no way we can get there from here! But each morning we pictured the women we’d just met, and the peak appeared a tiny bit closer.

When we finally reached the summit at 7am on the fifth day of our climb—after leaving our final base camp at midnight and snaking up the final freezing ascent in the dark—we were almost too exhausted to feel exhilarated. 

Almost, but not quite. We did manage a touch of exhilaration! We had done it! We had conquered that mountain! 

We drank a cup of hot sweet tea provided by our guides, snapped a few priceless photos, and reminded ourselves again of the daily struggle and courage of the women for whom we climbed.

Throughout the entire experience I’d been determined to keep my eyes and heart open—to hidden beauty, spontaneous conversations, hard-earned lessons, or profound insights.  Was there something unique and unexpected I needed to see or understand or ponder? 

As we broke camp on the last day—after a day and a half hike down the mountain—it hit me. As we met with our guides and porters for the last time, I suddenly “got” the deeper message the climb had for me. 

The deeper message was about the other side of the story—the side that climbers seldom talk about

Yes, it’s true we fifteen climbers worked really hard to summit Kilimanjaro. We trained diligently and prepared ourselves as best we could, body, mind and spirit. Yes, we pushed ourselves as hard as we could and accomplished something we never dreamed we could do.

But we didn’t do it alone. Not by a long shot.  As heroic as we felt at times, the truth is that it took sixty—yes 60!—African guides and porters to get the fifteen of us Americans up that mountain! 

That’s embarrassing to admit. But true. 

Our African guides and porters–many of whom were AMAZING women–were essential to our success.

Here are just a few of the things they did for us:

They set the pace and kept us on the right path

They carried our sleeping bags, tents, down jackets and duffle bags with all our clothes. (We carried small daypacks with water, snacks, jacket.) 

They carried food, cooking and serving utensils, and potable water for all of us for all six days of the climb. 

They carried medical supplies and oxygen in case we needed it. 

They cheered us on when we thought we couldn’t keep going, talked us through the symptoms of altitude sickness, and on occasion, literally carried some of us along

They woke us each morning at 6 and brought a hot drink to our tent. At 7 they served us a hot breakfast and filled our water bottles.

When we started hiking at 7:30 they broke camp and hoisted everything onto their backs. An hour or so later, we heard them racing up the trail behind us. Quickly we sidestepped so they could pass us, then we watched them sprint into the distance.

By late afternoon, when we dragged ourselves into the next camping area, they had our tents already set up. After serving us a hot and leisurely mealcomplete with fresh produce they’d carried up the mountain, they briefed us for the next day, then sent us to bed—in the sleeping bags they’d already arranged in our tents. 

One afternoon, when we stopped to pray for the women we were climbing for, the guides even joined our circle and our prayer

If you ever plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I heartily recommend the Tanzanian-owned company we used—The African Walking Company. I could write a whole book of praise for them. We loved them! 

But for now I just want to make one point:

We absolutely could not have done it without them. Without their help we wouldn’t have made it one mile up that mountain. No matter how hard we worked, it wasn’t enough. We needed them. 

On the final morning, as we met with them for the last time, I had an unexpected thought.

I thought about the millions of refugees around the world facing daunting mountains demanding everything they have to give—and more. 

Some refugees are climbing the mountain of security, crossing country borders in the middle of the night—often with bullets chasing them—in search of safety. 

Others are facing the mountain of healing, seeking relief from physical and emotional traumas most of can’t even imagine. 

Some are facing the mountain of economic viability, having lost everything and trying to start over in a strange place with no safety net. 

Unlike us, they didn’t choose to climb these mountains. They have no choice. 

Each morning they have to get up and put one foot in front of the other.Despite how impossible the summit looks, they can’t stop. Their loved ones are counting on them.  There’s no turning back, no escape, no place to return to.

The stakes are life and death. They have to keep going.

But here’s the thing: they can’t do it alone. No matter how hard they work, or sacrifice, or suffer, they can’t do it alone. 

They need their version of the African Walking Company to come alongside them. To point them in the right direction. To help them carry the load. To provide them food and shelter. To monitor how they’re doing and what they need to keep going. To cheer them on when feel overwhelmed. To pray with and for them.  To stick with them for the long haul, all the way to the summit.

And who is the African Walking Company that millions of refugees need?It’s us! It’s Christians! It’s churches! It’s ordinary people like you and me who consider it an honor to be the hands and feet of Jesus

The refugee crisis is unmaking the world. There’s no question about that. The tainted seeds of fear and hatred are yielding an unprecedented harvest of death and displacement. 

Millions of people have lost everything and they believe they’ve been forgotten.

But have they been forgotten? 

Three years ago a pastor I’d met via Twitter asked me a question that redirected my life and ministry. “You’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East,” he wrote, “so you have friends there.  Maybe they know people serving Syrian refugees? I saw a news report that broke my heart, but I don’t know what to do.  Can you help?”

I did have friends in the region, and they did know people on the ground—local NGOs and churches—who were serving refugees. After gathering information and carefully vetting groups, my Twitter friend and I started a small fundraising campaign to help support the grassroots heroes we’d discovered in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Some months later I traveled to the region and met with some of the groups we supported. They introduced me to Syrian refugees living in massive refugee camps or in urban slums. I heard horrific stories of loss and looked into vacant, hopeless eyes. 

But I also saw moms find the energy to face another day because of a bag of food offered by a local pastor’s wife. I saw kids laugh while they kicked a soccer ball or drew a picture in a child-friendly space in a church parking lot. I met women who were earning money for their kids’ medical care through a soap-making business a local NGO helped them set up. 

I saw hearts beginning to heal. I saw shafts of light in the darkness and flickers of hope

I saw the power of God’s love—lived out by God’s people—beginning to remake the world for refugees. 

I saw men, women and children finding the help they needed to climb the mountain in front of them. 

I know that for each of them the summit seemed distant and the path endless and dark. But with courage they put one foot in front of the other. They didn’t give up because they couldn’t. 

Since my first trip to the region those refugees have been joined by millions more facing the massive mountain of an unknown future.

The question is: Will they get the help they need to reach the summit? 

Will we show up? 

Will we be their African Walking Company? 

Will we be the guides and porters who come alongside to show the way and help carry the heavy load? 

In Mosul and Aleppo and Homs–and throughout the region–the need has never been greater. And the swirling, bitter winds of winter have already arrived. 

Are you willing to climb a mountain with refugees? If so, here’s what you can do: 

Some of the best information on how to engage with the Middle East refugee crisis, both locally and globally, is provided by We Welcome Refugees. This is a developing movement, empowering the global church to be a key agent of hope and compassion in this crisis. Believing “now is the church’s moment,” We Welcome Refugees provides tangible ways for individuals and churches to support refugees and partner with churches on the frontline of this humanitarian crisis. Their website features educational resources, practical ways to engage, and giving opportunities via several key organizations, including the following:

• Preemptive Love Coalition has been in the Middle East for over a decade and is uniquely positioned to reach those who are most vulnerable–on the front lines in both Iraq and Syria serving families fleeing ISIS and other violent militias. Peruse their website to find a wealth of hopeful information and numerous ways to make a difference for refugees. Here’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll hear from Preemptive Love: stories of hope rising–even above the horrors of Aleppo

• Questscope has been giving at-risk people in the Middle East “a second chance” for over three decades. Now they are first-responders, providing critical and long term assistance for thousands of families literally on the run for their lives in Syria. Just this week, Questscope is rescuing 4000 women and children from Homs, Syria. You can give desperately needed funds for those families here.

 World Relief works through churches in the US as well as throughout the Middle East and Europe to provide emergency and long-term assistance for refugees. Check out their website to see how your church can get involved. 

• World Vision provides vital emergency resources for refugees in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

For information on additional great organizations, check out this blog I posted last Christmas. 

Or give generously to your own favorite NGO

Kilimanjaro is a walk in the park compared to the mountains faced by the world’s refugees. 

Let’s show up and be their African Walking Company. Let’s give them the help and the hope they need to keep climbing. Let’s join them for the long haul so we can hear them say, We did it! We conquered the mountain! Let’s pour the hot sweet tea and celebrate!

Photos by Lynne Hybels, Chelsea Hudson and Christine Anderson.

RefugeesLynne Hybels