On refugees

I recently wrote a piece on refugees for a group of Christian women who are part of an online devotional group. The usual author had asked if I might like to pen something given the current global discussions on refugees, and while it took me a bit to get my thoughts together, once I did they just came tumbling out.

I want to share a (slightly edited) version here because this is one of the big global issues of our time and because writing a blog post is one tiny little advocacy action I can take to support those who have often lost everything as they’ve been forced to flee their homes.

So here it is…

For those of you who don’t know me personally, the plight of the refugee is one of my “big causes”.

I’ve volunteered with refugees overseas, I’ve worked with refugees in Australia and these days I work for a refugee organisation in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s an office job that involves too much time behind a computer, but it’s an amazing opportunity for me to serve a people group I care about a lot.

I’ve been mulling and praying and reflecting about what to write here – there are a hundred things swirling around my mind.

I believe the heart of God is wholly for the refugee, and considering who I am writing to, chances are many of you believe something similar. Either way, for a fantastic read on what the Bible says, let me send you to a piece by my friend Sarah Starrenburg: https://medium.com/@sarahstarrenburg/strangers-in-a-strange-land-refugees-and-the-bible-6f23eff59bd7#.9cyk4ay1y

I could pull out some numbers – that today there are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people, the highest number of people forced to flee their homes since the Second World War. I could get political and unpack the latest policy decisions in the United States – a country where, actually, I neither live nor vote. I could get technical on refugee law and explain how resettlement is an option for just the tiniest minority – and how many refugees just want peace and safety and the ability to go back to the country they call home.

Instead, let me tell you a story…

It’s a week night sometime in 2008 and I’m sitting in a dimly-lit dining room sharing a meal with a Sudanese man and his family. As we twist spaghetti around our forks, this man tells me a harrowing story of escaping extreme persecution in Sudan. Of walking on foot for days. Of capture and torture. Of being thrown into a hole like a corpse and being left to die.

At one point he lifts his shirt to show us scars across his back where he was beaten. I lose my appetite.

Our discussion is not taking place in Sudan, or in Kenya where this family eventually escaped to, or in Egypt where they spent years waiting to be processed. We’re sharing a meal together in a small suburban home in Brisbane, Australia.

About twelve months earlier, a friend and I signed up to a local community program and were matched with a newly arrived refugee family. Our task? To spend an hour a week with the family to introduce them to Australian culture, help with English studies and supervise homework.

My favourite evening was one night when we discussed the emergency services in Australia. For many refugees, their experience in their home country has taught them that men in official uniform are not to be trusted, so it’s a topic that the program stressed we should cover.

We asked the children if they knew what 000 meant (the Australian equivalent of 911), if they’d ever called it in an emergency. “Oh yes!” they exclaimed enthusiastically, recounting a long and convoluted story about an intruder in the home. After a few animated minutes and lots of questions from our side, we discovered the intruder our little African-Australians so feared was actually a possum that had climbed through the back window. The friendly Aussie policeman was more than happy to help them get it out.

Much of the discussion around refugees in the media, in politics, perhaps even around the family dinner table, is shaped by a narrative of fear. Despite the fact the US resettlement programme already involves an incredibly stringent vetting process that can take years, recent decisions in the US stir up that fear. Discussions in Australia over ‘illegal boat people’ plays up that fear.

Fear of those who look different to us, who sound different to us, who believe different to us.

Fear of the ‘Other’.

Here’s what I know. It’s hard to fear the ‘Other’ when you share a meal with them. When you colour in a Disney Princess colouring book with their daughter, and play soccer with their son. When you meet their brand new baby girl just days out of the hospital.

When you see Jesus in them.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

– Matthew 25:35-36

The plight of the refugee may not be your “big cause” – the one that deserves the majority of your time, your energy, your career or finances. My hope is that you’re aware of what your “big cause” is (or causes!) and you are using your God-given gifts in those areas, that your Christian faith is more than knowledge and good ideas, but overflowing into love-in-action.

But the refugee doesn’t need to be your ‘big cause’ to deserve your welcome, your advocacy, your prayers and petitions. Your voice, your heart, your spare $20 – they are all needed in times like these.

Think global, act local’ is not in Scripture, but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is. In today’s hyper-connected, globalised world, my prayer is that we as the Church would be known for loving our neighbour across the road and loving our neighbour across the ocean, and taking every opportunity to invite in the stranger and turn them into our neighbour, too.

If you want to do something tangible to love ‘the stranger’, here are three options you may consider. There are many, many wonderful people and organisations serving refugees in various locations around the world, but these are three specific causes close to my heart:

  1. Donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre‘s Emergency Appeal, to help provide legal support to asylum seekers in Australia who have waited for years to be able to apply for asylum, and now have to fill in a complex legal form in English in a very short timeframe.
  2. Donate to the South Sudan emergency, the third-largest refugee crisis after Syria and Afghanistan, to raise much-needed funding for over 1.5 million South Sudanese refugees who have fled the country in the last three years. Thousands of people are still crossing the borders every day, and the situation inside South Sudan is getting worse, with famine recently declared in parts of the country.
  3. For readers in Brisbane, join VoRTCS/St Vinnies and give an hour a week to support a refugee family with English skills, homework support and the knowledge of how to deal with a possum intruder 😉



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