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Building Better Lives for Refugees: An Interview with Chris Woodruff

April 10–14, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Programs 31–35
Previously aired:   March 28–April 1, 2016   |   Vol. 126, Programs 41–45

For refugees living in Thailand, a knock at the door could mean imprisonment for the whole family. Every day is a struggle to get by.

Homeschool graduate Chris Woodruff is equipping churches to bring aid to these refugees through his organization, Life Raft International.

In this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat podcast, Chris sits down with host Mike Farris to talk about:

  • The amazing story of Dilan, a Sri Lankan refugee
  • How Chris’s homeschool education helps him bring hope to refugees
  • The harrowing situation for refugees in Bangkok
  • How Chris is helping refugees build a better life
  • How you can get involved in bringing aid to refugees

“I looked at myself, and I looked at our church, and I saw our brothers in need, and [I thought], ‘We have the world’s goods; we need to help him.’”—Chris Woodruff

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In 2009, homeschool graduate Chris Woodruff ate dinner with a refugee family in Thailand—and that encounter changed his life. Hear more about Chris, and the organization he started to help refugees, on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

Mike Farris: My guest this week is Chris Woodruff. He’s a homeschool graduate, son of HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff. And he’s also the co-founder of Life Raft International. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps and supports refugees. Chris, welcome to the program!

Chris Woodruff: Thanks for having me. It’s a huge honor to be here.

Mike: Tell us a little bit about Life Raft International. What’s it about, and what inspired you to found it?

Whoever has the world’s goods . . . [0:41]

Chris: We enable churches in Thailand to minister to urban refugees. And really, for what inspired me, it really came from looking at Jesus, and how, when he came to the world, he chose to minister to some of the most vulnerable and most oppressed people. And he met not just their physical needs, but their spiritual needs. And as he did this, the Gospel spread like wildfire and changed the world. 

And for churches in Thailand, some of the most oppressed and most vulnerable people in the world are at their doorsteps, and sometimes in their pews. And I believe that as churches minister to their physical and spiritual needs, not only will individual lives be changed, but cultures will change, and countries will change. 

Dilan’s story [1:32]

Mike: Chris, that is a broad and amazing vision. How do you turn it into reality?

Chris: It started actually back in 2009 when I was an English teacher in Bangkok. And I was at my church there, and one day a family of refugees walked into the church. And they were actually from Sri Lanka. And I got to know them, and they were just this really beautiful, wonderful family.

One day they invited me back to their apartment. And the apartment was actually about the size of this studio. So there wasn’t really room for a table or chairs, but they still gave me this seat of honor on the bed. And for dinner they gave me this big heaping plate of delicious Sri Lankan food. And they sat on the floor and watched me eat it. And they wouldn’t touch any food until they were confident that I was entirely full and satisfied. And this was especially humbling for me because I knew that they were fasting on a weekly basis because they didn’t have enough money for food.

And a little while later, I found out that in order to pay for one more month of rent, that the father—we’ll call him Dilan—and his wife—that they were going to pawn off their wedding rings.

There’s a verse in 1 John that says, “For we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us. And so we also should lay down our lives for our brothers. But whoever sees his brother in need and has the world’s goods and closes his heart to him, how can he say the love of God abides in him?” And I looked at myself, and I looked at our church, and I saw our brothers in need, and [I thought], “We have the world’s goods; we need to help him.” And we did. For all of us, it was just this incredibly empowering and transformational experience.

And a year later, Dilan and his family were actually able to get on a plane to Europe. And right now they’re in Europe and they’re safe and they’re free and they still have their wedding rings. And it was that experience that inspired me, like, “Let’s get more people in Thailand involved with ministering to refugees. Let’s enable people in the U.S. to be a part of this movement.”

No schools, no problem [3:48]

Mike: Chris, how did your homeschool education prepare you for the work that you now do at Life Raft International?

Chris: So first, homeschooling taught me to think outside the box. When you grow up, kind of, seeing the standard public education, people going to public school, and you’re homeschooled, you just learn a totally different way of thinking about things and learning about life. You know, in terms of even having this idea of starting a ministry, in terms of as we’ve grown in facing different situations, and being willing to grow and improve what we do, that homeschooling experience of thinking outside of the normal has been huge for me.

Second—and this is more concrete—is: it’s helped me to give refugee families hope for education for their kids. Because for refugee families in Thailand, they almost have the opposite problem of what we can have here in the U.S. It’s almost impossible for them to send their kids to Thai public school. And if they did, that’s actually endangering their family. So it’s almost impossible for them to go to school. And so, for a lot of refugees, they’re coming from a culture where homeschooling isn’t part of the paradigm. And so they say, “We can’t educate our kids.”

And that’s where I say, “Look at me! I was homeschooled, and you can do this too. And you can actually give your kids a higher quality education than they would [get] just going to a normal school.”

A knock at the door [5:00]

Mike: Chris, your organization is focused on helping refugees in Bangkok. Tell us who they are.

Chris: Right now, the situation in Bangkok: there are about 10,000 refugees in Bangkok. And most of them are actually Christians from Pakistan. And they come to Thailand because getting a 60-day tourist visa to Thailand is the quickest, cheapest way to escape persecution. There are also refugees from Vietnam, from Sri Lanka, from Iraq, from Syria.

So they come to Thailand usually on a 60-day tourist visa. But as soon as that visa—60-day tourist visa—expires, immigration police actually hunt refugees down. And they’ll take entire families and throw them into a really terrible prison. It’s called the International Detention Center. And this include kids. They’ll throw families, including kids, in this detention center. About 10 percent of refugees end up at the detention center.

But for the rest, they live under its menace, knowing that any knock at the door—any time really to even step outside their apartment—they and their entire families could be arrested. And so not only are they living with this menace, but they don’t speak the language, they face racial discrimination in Thailand. And from their perspective it’s almost impossible for their kids to get an education. And they’re also really vulnerable to trafficking.

Faced with this, refugees flock to churches in Thailand. And so for churches in Thailand, some of the most vulnerable and some of the most oppressed people in the world are at their doorsteps, and sometimes in their pews. And so that’s the situation, and they’re faced with the question of, “How can we help? Will we help?”

Building a better life [6:49]

Mike: Chris, the people you’ve described really cry out for help. What kind of help can you bring them, and what kind of help can we add to the situation?

Chris: So in terms of how we help, everything we do is through churches in Bangkok. And we work through individual members of the congregation. And so when we help a refugee family, there’s always someone in a church, on the ground, who knows the family and is walking with them. And our model is to empower that person to minister to the refugees. And so we start just by providing funds so they can have a place to stay, and they can have food.

But the second step is to ask them the question of, “How do you want to use your time in Bangkok?” Because we believe that despite how hard Bangkok can be, God brought refugees to Bangkok for a purpose. And we want to work with them and explore what His purpose is for them. And so, really, in a lot of cases we think it’s an opportunity for education and learning and for families, for adults to improve their English or learn whatever they want to do, and for families to educate their kids—a lot of times hopefully through homeschooling.

The refugee process [7:54]

Mike: Chris, one question that I have—especially since you’re a lawyer yourself, graduated recently from Georgetown Law School: What are the legal situations? Is there asylum law? Is there any chance that these people can be helped to lawfully stay in Thailand? What’s the legal issues that you can help and that we can help?

Chris: Right. So, from a legal perspective, Thailand didn’t sign the refugee convention. So, by Thai law, there’s no difference between a refugee and an economic migrant or even someone who’s sneaking across, smuggling drugs. They’re all breaking Thai law. So the hope for refugees is the UN—Thailand, however, does allow the UN to operate there. And so what refugees do is they go to the UN and they try to get official refugee status with the UN. And if they can get that official status with the UN, the UN will then try to find a new country that will accept them.

That’s a really terrible process, and for the vast majority of refugees in Thailand, they’re going to the UN, and they don’t understand the intricacies of the system, they don’t know how to tell their story. And there are incentives in place to limit the number of refugees who have refugee status. There are other issues with the UN process, but one of the things I’ll be doing is, from my legal training at Georgetown—I actually have a certificate in refugee and humanitarian emergencies there, I’ve done with refugees here in the U.S.—is, I’ll be guiding refugees through that process, especially refugees who are at the prison, who are especially vulnerable and it’s especially important for them to get out.

Get involved [9:25]

Mike: Chris, you’ve told some amazing stories about Life Raft International, and [about] your work and your call in your life. What can our listeners do to get involved with Life Raft?

Chris: The easiest thing is to shoot me an email. We love to personally connect with people, so shoot me an email at chris@liferaftinternational.org. If you want to get involved, we want to talk to you and explore what that looks like. You could also check us out at liferaftinternational.org.

Mike: Where do you see the organization going in the next five to ten years?

Chris: The biggest thing is dramatically increasing our footprint. Right now we’re partnering with four churches in Thailand and we’re reaching about 300 refugees. But there are 10,000 refugees in Bangkok. And there are more than 100 churches. So we would love to dramatically increase the number of churches that we partner with and reach a significantly larger number of refugees. 

Mike: How would you be able to do that?

Chris: So, raising funds is the first step—having more staff, infrastructure. My wife and I have—for the past four years, we’ve actually been in the U.S. But we’ll be moving to Thailand and be able to be on the ground and connecting more with churches. 

Mike: Listeners, if you would like to multiply the efforts of Chris Woodruff, to help families who are facing persecution mainly because of the Islamic situation in so many of these countries, and people that often are Christians, people that want to know Christ, people that there’s opportunities to advance the Gospel, advance homeschooling, advance [the] love of Christ—please get involved with Life Raft International. I’m Mike Farris.

Chris WoodruffPhoto of Chris Woodruff

Chris Woodruff is the executive director of Life Raft International, an organization that enables churches to minister to refugees in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chris was born in Missouri and homeschooled from third grade through high school. In 1998, when he was 11, Chris and his family moved to Virginia when his father, Scott Woodruff, was hired by HSLDA. Chris attended Baylor University on a full-tuition “Regents” scholarship, and graduated in 2009. Two days after he graduated, he flew to Bangkok, Thailand, to teach English.

In June of 2011, Chris founded Life Raft International. Later that year he enrolled in Georgetown Law School. From August 2011 to May 2015 (when he graduated), Chris took law school classes part-time, while leading Life Raft International full-time.

Chris met his wife, Jade, while on a ministry visit in September of 2012. They got married in August of 2013, and they now live in Bangkok, Thailand.

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