By Glenn Oviatt, Intern
On a frigid February afternoon in 2008, Jeannette and her six children disembarked from their plane at O’Hare International Airport and stepped onto North American soil for the first time.
Separated from their home in Tanzania by the fullness of the Atlantic Ocean and the width of the entire African continent, Jeannette entered her new life with many doubts.
How would she and her family adjust to the language, culture and customs of the United States? Would anyone come to her assistance when she needed help? Would she make friends?
But waiting just outside the gate for Jeannette and her family was Annette, a Wheaton woman who previously lived in Tanzania and had volunteered with World Relief for years.
Accompanied by several members of Wheaton Bible Church, Annette welcomed Jeannette and her family to the country with the few Swahili phrases she knew. Then, shivering together as they walked to the car through the unbearable cold, they set off to take the family to their new home in Wheaton.
When Annette first learned about Jeannette’s family through World Relief, she couldn’t ignore the similarities in both their names and their families. At home, Annette grew up outnumbered by five brothers; Jeannette had one daughter and five sons. Even considering their linguistic, cultural and ethnic differences, Annette knew they would form a lasting friendship.
Now, almost three years later, Annette and Jeannette have formed a bond stronger than either woman could have predicted in the moment they met on that frigid afternoon at the airport. ”We are not friends. We are sisters,” explained Annette.Jeannette’s Story
For most of her life Jeannette has been a stranger in a foreign land. When she was 11 years old, Jeannette fled from Burundi with her family while the country was in the midst of civil war and ethnic strife.
They came to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and traveled throughout the war-torn nation, trying to find a place where they could settle down without threats of violence. Continually moving to avoid the war, Jeannette and her family rarely found assistance for their daily questions and struggles.
“We were still in Africa, but every place we moved to had a different language,” Jeannette said. “We found all kinds of problems along the way and nobody helped us through these difficulties. But God did.”
After Jeannette married and started her own family, they moved to Tanzania where she and her husband built a small house out of sticks and branches and raised their children.
Unfortunately, after steadily losing weight for nine years, her husband passed away due to complications with diabetes not long after settling in Tanzania. Unable to become Tanzanian citizens and unable to return to Burundi or the Congo, the future was uncertain for Jeannette and her family. With no safe place to go, Jeannette asked God to provide a better home with better opportunities for her children. When her family was offered the chance to move to the United States as refugees, Jeannette agreed, even though she was initially wary about moving again.
“Being in a foreign land, you don’t know where the doctor is, you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know the secrets of the culture,” Jeannette said. Although she was tired from a lifetime of traveling, Jeannette came to realize that God would provide for her family no matter what happened in America.
And God provided through Annette and members of Wheaton Bible Church.
“I remember receiving the original information on Jeannette’s family and knowing immediately that Annette was the right match,” explained Gretchen Schmidt, World Relief’s Communication and Church Engagement Manager. “God has shown us over and over again through the years how perfectly He paired these two together.”
A few months after Jeannette and her family arrived, doctors discovered a 3cm hole in the heart of her youngest son Minani, then eight years old. When the doctors suggested performing either open-heart surgery or a less-invasive procedure with a catheter threaded through a vein, Jeannette sought Annette’s guidance. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Jeannette said. “I just didn’t know what to think.”
Together, the two women – along with other members of Wheaton Bible Church – walked through the process of doctor visits and medical tests, including multiple trips to Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Jeannette ultimately decided on the less-invasive procedure. The day Minani was discharged, Annette picked him up. “When I got to the hospital, Minani jumped up and gave me a big hug,” Annette said. “He was ready to go home.”
Throughout Jeannette’s adjustment to America, Annette has walked beside her through her many questions and challenges – ranging from plumbing and transportation to medical decisions and family crises.
“I’m not by myself,” explained Jeannette.
Several years ago when Annette moved from the United States to Tanzania, she was robbed and beaten by a gang of men who shot their way into her home. Although she had only been in the country for a short time and didn’t yet know her neighbors, Annette said they “stormed the house” to rescue her from her attackers. Grateful for the Tanzanian neighbors who saved her, Annette has since dedicated herself to assisting her new neighbors who come to the United States.
“I reach out to my new neighbors now because I want to be the one to storm the house if they’re in trouble,” Annette shared tearfully.
When Annette befriended Jeannette and her family, she was ready to help in any way possible. What she couldn’t foresee was how deep their friendship would grow. In January 2010, during her final semester of graduate school at Wheaton College, Annette was diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer.
It was now Jeannette’s turn to provide the constant support, prayer and friendship that Annette needed in order to make it through this immense trial.
“She was able to come and see me in the hospital after I had surgery,” Annette said. “She prayed with me right there.”
When Annette began chemotherapy, Jeannette regularly called to ask how she could better pray for her. “How are you doing?” Jeannette questioned. “Does it hurt? How are you sleeping?” And then she would say, “Okay, you go rest and I will pray.” “That was a beautiful, beautiful gift,” Annette said.
In the spring, Annette was strong enough to walk at her graduation. Jeannette watched her accept her diploma, reserving a great loving hug for after the ceremony.
The Continuing Friendship
Now that Annette’s cancer is in remission, she looks forward to deepening her relationship with Jeannette and sharing the ways they have seen God at work in their lives.
Together as sisters, they pray and read the Bible in Swahili and English and although both women need some translation to fully understand each other, they know that God hears them both and understands everything.
They continue to teach their languages to each other so that one day they can look back at their growing relationship and express their thoughts and feelings with nothing lost in translation.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we can speak in [the same] language and share deeply from our hearts,” Annette said. While Annette and Jeannette continue to experience each joy and every challenge of their lives, they will walk side-by-side—not merely as friends, but as sisters.
When you stand with people like Annette, you STAND / FOR THE VULNERABLE.
To learn more about World Relief and how you can get involved with refugees like Jeannette, click here.