When Cam Echols thinks of her work as the executive director of the Refugee Empowerment Program (REP), she speaks of a calling that motivates her to open arms to strangers planting new roots in her Memphis neighborhood.Welcoming a stranger is a calling of faith, she says. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” reads Hebrews 13:2. The people Cam serves may have entertained the angels, but a great many have also seen the darkness of this world.
Most are from war-torn regions of Africa — places like Burundi and Rwanda where some of the worst ethnic conflicts of the modern era have shattered countless lives.
When she meets them, they are starting from scratch in the United States, filled with a mix of hope and uncertainty.
“To come to a new country not knowing the language, the culture, the transportation or educations systems; it’s just frustrating, and to have some friends — some people that are passionate and want to help you — is so important,” Cam says.
REP was one of the first partners to become part of the network of nonprofit organizations and ministries working out of The Commons on Merton, the old United Methodist Church building that has been transformed into a hub of community transformation in the Binghampton neighborhood.
When refugees settle into the neighborhood, they struggle with the basics of life in a new land, but Cam points out their internal struggle to deal with the traumatic experiences of life in the face of brutality has traditionally been left untouched by service organizations.
“What we’ve not been good about doing in this city is (addressing) the post-traumatic stress syndrome, and how we deal with that is being neighborly and friendly,” Cam says.
“I think of the language of love — you don’t have to speak the same language but people understand when you care about them.”
The Commons brings people of all backgrounds together in the spirit of community, Cam says, and she finds great inspiration in this connectivity and the shared sense of purpose pulsing within the old building.
“It goes back to being what America was originally founded on: a melting pot; a true melting pot where all people of different ethnicities, colors and genders all have one community within the building,” Cam says.