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Genafine Bartoo M.A. ’21 on the Impact of Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership Training

Words: Grace Kenyon ’22

Wheaton College (IL) Humanitarian Disaster Leadership Alumna Genafine Bartoo

Genafine Bartoo M.A. ’21

Genafine Bartoo M.A. ’21 was walking to her home in Nairobi, Kenya one night after class when she encountered refugee families from East African countries living underneath a footbridge. Before, she might have looked the other way, but she couldn’t anymore. She had recently returned from an internship with International Justice Mission (IJM) in Washington D.C., and she was forever changed.

During her internship, she was exposed to the reality of human trafficking and was convicted of the ways in which the church often fails to live into the words of Micah 6:8, to seek justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.

“These words are not just reading for everybody else,” Bartoo realized. “It includes me, too.”

That night, she asked the families to share their stories. They were from countries like Eritrea, Uganda, and Somalia and had come from the Kakuma refugee camp to Nairobi to seek help from the UNHCR. Bartoo returned to that bridge over and over, gaining their trust, learning their needs, and eventually bringing friends along for dinners under the bridge. At one point, she convinced the missions pastor from her home church to come with her, and their time of fellowship turned into a full-scale refugee ministry at her church.

After finishing her undergraduate degree in Kenya, Bartoo completed other internships, including a partnership with Wheaton Bible Church that brought her to the Chicago area. She had plans of returning to work with IJM, this time in Cambodia, but ended up visiting Wheaton’s campus when a friend needed to be dropped off there. Someone introduced her to the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership (HDL) program and she was immediately interested in enrolling.

Even though it was hard being in the program during the pandemic, Bartoo said her time at Wheaton was beautiful because of the community that formed within her cohort. Throughout her time, she served in many leadership roles, including as a student chaplain. She enjoyed movie nights with her cohort and learning from a diverse class with a variety of experiences in the mission field.

Bartoo recalls being loved in simple, tangible ways by her classmates, such as when her friend from Uganda offered to drive her to class during the winter. Every Thursday before their morning class, they would meet and drink Kenyan chai as they drove to class in the cold.

Bartoo’s personal mission, she said, is to be a bridge between refugees and the church. As a degree program that aims to provide holistic training for those engaging in humanitarian work, the HDL program teaches practical skills needed to run a nonprofit and even equips students to deal with burnout. For Bartoo, the highlight was learning how to serve with a biblically grounded mindset.

“In our class, we talked about how, when we serve people in need, their first identity is not a victim of human trafficking or a refugee or somebody in poverty. But their first identity is that they are children who are made in God’s image and likeness,” Bartoo said. “And to me, that’s beautiful.”

Equipped with new skills that complement her previous field experience, Bartoo moved to California and began work with World Relief Sacramento, an organization that shares her same mission. Now she works to empower churches to contribute to refugee outreach in whatever way they can, whether by hosting ESL classes, donating their space to be used by other services, or partnering with individual families. For example, Bartoo tells the story of one family that was uncomfortable visiting the laundromat because they feared their laundry would be stolen. In this case, showing God’s love simply meant showing them how to do their laundry and reassuring them that they could leave it unattended.

However, the love is never one-sided, and Bartoo said humility is key to service.

“They bring value to the communities and they have something to offer as well. It’s not just me who has something to bring into their lives,” Bartoo said. “It’s a mutual transformation between humanitarian leaders and the people in need.”

To learn more about the Wheaton College master’s program in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership, visit wheaton.edu/hdl.