I don’t know if it was the first time I had ever met a refugee, but I do remember the first time I met a refugee from Syria. I’m sure somewhere in my twenty-something years, I’ve met someone who was forced to leave their native country because they were unable to live, work, and love in the place called home. But it probably didn’t mean anything to me. Maybe I even thought they were lucky to have left, considering living in their home country sounded like a nightmare. I couldn’t see and didn’t understand that home is still home, regardless of how bad it is. The reality of it didn’t hit me until I heard Sam’s story.
I met Sam in September 2013, outside of a McDonald’s in Morocco. He was a friend of a Moroccan friend, and he spoke better English than she did, so he translated some of our conversation and tried to teach me words in Syrian Arabic. He was friendly, intelligent, and angry. I asked him if he liked Morocco. A short answer- no. But Sam couldn’t go home to his country because of the war. It was the first time I had even really thought about the war in Syria.
Sam had no idea if his family members were dead or alive. He was marooned on the tip of this California-sized country in North Africa, far from his home in the Middle East where he was born and raised, selling carpets in a giant supermarket. I was choosing to be there, away from the comfort of my home on my own adventure, but Sam did not choose his life, and it was not an adventure.
Responding to the Refugee Crisis
As anyone who isn’t living under a rock knows, millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have come flooding into Europe because of crisis in their native countries. In the beginning of July, I’ll go to Dusseldorf, Germany for a little over a month to work on staff as a part of a relief effort to assist refugees in both immediate, practical ways (food, education), and less practical ways (hosting camps for the children, spending time with families).
I don’t pretend to be able to meet all of the needs of the people there, and I don’t pretend to even understand all of their needs. But I do believe that as someone who follows the ways of Jesus, I am compelled not to ignore those who are in need. Because Jesus never did.
The longer I stay in the U.S., especially in the community I grew up in, the more comfortable I get with driving around in my own little car in my own safe neighborhood, eating FDA-approved food, and never coming across someone who doesn’t speak English. And about a month ago, I began to ask myself the “what ifs” as I thought more and more about this summer. The media, especially television, has a way of inflating events of exceptional violence to make us believe they are the norm. What if there’s a terrorist attack, what if I come across someone who is angry, unemployed, and ready to lash out, what if…the list goes on.
It’s fear that causes people to ignore or turn their backs on crises. It’s good to be wise, realistic, and prepared for real danger. But human beings are not called to live out of fear. We are called to live out of love for other people, and to never treat them as too different than ourselves to consider them with compassion.
There’s an excellent non-fiction book called City of Thorns about the world’s largest refugee camp in northern Kenya. The author, Ben Rawlence, speaks about the predominant attitude in the first world towards refugees, saying:
“At a time when there are more refugees than ever, the rich world has turned its back on them. Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human”.*
Rawlence explains that the conversations surrounding the refugee crisis “[seem] to allow for only 2 kinds of young people: terrorists and those at risk of becoming one”.**
In my own working through fear and hesitation to get on that plane to Germany, I discovered that I had begun to think of these refugees- mainly young men- the same way. I had begun to make mass generalizations about individuals who, forced to leave their countries because of extreme violence, must certainly also be angry, dangerous, and too far-removed from my own ideology to relate to.
The bible says perfect love casts out all fear.*** It’s good to be prepared, wise, and knowledgable, especially in the face of real danger. But I don’t want to get so comfortable in southern California that I can no longer take risks for the sake of love. How do we respond to crises that are not our own? It starts with thinking about those men, women, and children as people with aspiration, ambitions, talents, personal dilemmas, personality quirks, and preferences. They are individuals, not a mass to be categorized.
Alongside the more practical work I’ll be engaged in, I’m looking forward to spending time with children, making friends with some young women, learning some Syrian Arabic, and (fingers crossed) enjoying some Afghan cooking.
I’m sure I’m going to learn A LOT in Germany. But I’m also sure I will leave knowing less than I did before. That is, the more you see, the less you know (well said, Bono).
And speaking of Bono, he wrote an op-ed for the New York times on just this subject. It’s worth reading. Bono talks about the current attitudes towards refugee crises around the world, possible solutions, and the crazy resilience of hope.
More to come on my trip to Germany, on the people I meet, and what they teach me and I teach them. And more to come on hope.
*City of Thorns, Rawlence, pg. 4
**City of Thorns, Rawlence, pg. 3
***1 John 4:18