Got a map on the wall? Then here’s your question of the day: Where are the refugees and migrants from, and where are they going? (No wall map available? Just use a world-map placemat or that atlas on the shelf.*)
Media coverage highlights refugees fleeing Syria. But Syria does not stand alone; other parts of the Middle East and several chaotic countries in Africa add millions more. In the current contest for the U.S. presidency, Mexican migrants get major attention.
“The worst refugee crisis since the upheaval of World War II” is how statisticians describe it. Those who don’t have the luxury of looking at things from the safety of a TV or computer screen may have a different view. Scant attention to stats, just life/death decisions. Where will my loved ones be safe? Is the unknown guy who has promised – for a price – to get us to Europe, trustworthy? If we do escape death here – whether suddenly in the night or by torture day after day after day – will we be rejected and ordered to go back home?
Even as I write, the UN has called an emergency Summit on Refugees and Migrants; President Obama will convene a Summit to focus on action the very next day. Against that background I invite your attention to these human stories. They are as varied as the range of public opinion.
View #1 – from a Voluntary Immigrant
We were talking over coffee, Ben and I. He was affable, intelligent, open to talk about his life.
Ben takes pride in his young family, his growing business, in America, his adopted country. He’s also loyal to his home country, Israel. He migrated to the U.S. because it is, in his words, the ideal place for him and his family to “live the dream.”
“This is a great country,” he said. “Except for one thing: you’re soft on terrorism. ISIS wants to destroy everything you stand for. Unless we hit them hard, they’ll take over the country.”
The conversation turned to Canada. “What an idiot they’ve got for a Prime Minister,” he stated flatly. “Not only does he allow Syrian refugees in; he welcomes them! Think: if only 2 percent of them are terrorists, all the damage they can do!”
As for countries like Germany, setting a world standard for giving refugees a second chance, he simply threw up his hands. “They’re a hopeless case.”
Continuing our conversation over months, I invited Ben to write a guest blog for this space. He gladly accepted. Finally he said, “I don’t want to go public with my views. It’s too dangerous.” For that reason I don’t reveal his name or location. But Ben had made his point: walls beat a welcome any day.
View #2 – from a Refugee Resettlement Worker
Canada’s stance toward refugees may be unique in the world. There is a government program; there is also freedom for voluntary organizations to sponsor refugees. An outstanding example is the stand taken by a church in southern Ontario. Its building is modest, its members make no claim to be among the power brokers of this world, yet it is committed to sponsoring 32 needy persons. This includes, among other things, guaranteeing them housing, education, financial and psychological support. The church’s part-time manager for refugee outreach tells the story.
I am honoured to contribute to Ward Kaiser’s blog site and to share my experiences of settling Syrian Refugees in Canada. It has been a tremendous experience, frustrating, even heartbreaking yet wondrously life giving.
I fell into my role by accident. (We learn, however, that the Holy Spirit moves as the Holy Spirit does.) I accepted a one-year contract to start a new Outreach Project in the Fort Erie area of Southern Ontario. We had a mandate to explore opportunities in a broad variety of social and human concerns. One option was to sponsor refugees. Two weeks later an election in Canada brought the Liberal Party into office. Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister, moved quickly on his election promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian Refugees. And St. John’s Stevensville United Church, through its Embrace Foundation, chose to become a partner.
The first fellow we welcomed was among those identified as “high priority” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He arrived just before Christmas 2015. Housing was not yet in place so I brought him home. We had been told that he spoke some English, but that turned out to be exaggeration of “Hello” and “Thank you”. On the drive from Toronto, his port of arrival, we scrambled to find a translator, and one willing woman got back to me right away. She was waiting at my house as we pulled up! She was a pure blessing to us in those early days.
More followed, more strangers who became family and who would spend time in our home from a few days to several months. As my husband and I reflect on that first day we are humbled by the trust the newcomer placed in us. He picked up his one bag, stepped out into the snow, and got in a van with two strangers that did not speak his language, who would take him to an unknown place to start a new life. He trusted us to provide the needed supports while being introduced to a new culture.
I have learned a lot since that first day. I have learned to deal with immigration bureaucracy. There was not one single file that turned out to be straightforward, and I have made more than one visit to my Member of Parliament. I learned to navigate the variety of ways that post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself, while pastorally (and sometimes parentally) dealing with issues of grief and loss. I have learned to negotiate expectations on the part of newcomers and of sponsors. I have learned that if you agree to be part of a refugees settlement, you best be in it for the long haul. This is no simple financial commitment: put up money for a few years and it’s done! And I learned that “community” grows. What do I mean by that? Well, my name got around, and I unofficially became the support person for extended family and friends of the newcomers. I have been called on to help in a variety of ways (with generous support from the wider United Church community). I have bought sneakers, school supplies, and groceries. I have intervened with the Police Department and other agencies. I have made a panicked trip to Mississauga when one young man got hit by a car. I cried with a young woman who miscarried her baby. Then cried again when a family’s father died before he could join them in Canada. I watched my husband embrace the men of that family and drive them to the mosque for their grieving rituals, staying with them and becoming the father figure they needed. I watch my own kids become best friends with the Syrian kids. Now a family barbeque would not complete without half the grill featuring halal food.
My challenge now, as my contract winds down, is to focus on re-uniting families, a very time-consuming and costly process. One that I will start, but someone else will finish. It is at times hard to communicate the complexity of process to those desperate to see their mother, brother, sister again.
From a personal perspective the past year has strengthened my faith in Jesus Christ as the stories from the Gospels took on a new meaning. It has been an opportunity to live my faith, not just in words but also in deeds. It expanded my view of “Who is my neighbour?” The experience has allowed me to serve Christ as I offered food and shelter to “strangers in the land”. Life will never again be the same for the Wood-Thomas family, and we are blessed because of it.
Rev. Cheryl Wood-Thomas
View 3 – from One Who Escaped Syria
I escaped Syria long before the civil war broke out in 2011.
I had been imprisoned for four years and tortured because of my journalism and human rights work, so I fled to the UK in 1999.
Little did I know, over 15 years later, I would be rescuing my entire family, who would arrive on the island of Lesvos, Greece in a small rubber boat.
It was December, before the EU closed its doors abruptly, trapping countless refugees in cruel limbo.
If you would like to help advocate for refugees like my family, please support Amnesty International. This month is their annual membership drive, and until September 30th all donations will be matched by a group of donors.
Let me tell you more about my family.
My brother Safi ran a mobile phone shop until last year, when somebody shot at it. My nephew Mazin needed to escape forced recruitment into the army. So the family fled to Lebanon, and reached Turkey in just a few days.
Then the message came that they had paid someone to take them to Lesvos. I told them not to go in the night because if you have an accident you are more likely to drown. I told them to wear a raincoat and plastic bags on their feet and that most lifejackets were fake.
I also told them, “Try not to scream because it scares the children."
When I saw their boat, I slid down the hillside on my backside. The only person I recognized was Safi. My sister-in-law Nina was crying. She thought she had lost her baby because people had stepped on her belly in panic on the boat. I picked up so many children, including my three-year-old niece Sirin – I didn’t know it was her until later.
We went to register them in the official camp, Moria, but it was too busy – people were sleeping outside, and it was so cold. I had to rent somewhere for my family – refugees weren’t allowed to stay in a hotel or go in a taxi.
They are fortunate. I was there to greet them. And Germany offered them safe haven. They’re going to language school and waiting for a place to open up in kindergarten for Sirin.
The situation in Greece is much, much worse now than when my family came over. In March, Moria became a closed detention center because of a new agreement between the EU and Turkey, which threatens to send people back to Turkey.
People are also stuck all over mainland Greece in terrible conditions with very little support. When I volunteered in Athens recently I saw three-day-old babies being sent back from the hospital to live in tents in the terrible heat. There’s a real sense of despair.
Former Syrian refugee and Human Rights Consultant
View #4 – Offering a European Welcome
Lebanon and Germany are special cases. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Lebanon, in spite of serious home-grown problems, now has the world’s highest ratio of refugees to population: 183 per every 1,000 residents. We seldom hear of that in the news. Germany is expected to take in 800,000 to one million refugees this year.
Is there a backlash? Of course! Still, as BBC’s Berlin correspondent, Damien McGuiness, reported in August, the country’s broad consensus – to keep the welcome sign at the door – is solidly in place. Polls show 69 percent supportive of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s asylum policy, versus 28 percent opposed.
Markus Droge, the popular Protestant bishop of Berlin, is, often seen as the prime reason for the country’s remarkable record. He organized welcome events for refugees in every parish, highlighting “what it means to be Christian” – to welcome the stranger, to do good, to live by acts of love. He set aside a property in Berlin as “The Refugee Church,” now a one-stop service center bringing together newcomers and trained volunteers.
Those volunteers include Catholics, Jews and Muslims as well as Protestants. I like to think that the late Dr. Arno Peters, who had no formal connection with any faith community, would have lent his support as well. His monumental work in the oneness of world history and his influential world map clearly reveal his passion for fairness and the right of all people to be treated with dignity.
Bishop Droge points to the results when ordinary people open the door to those in need. “Once the host communities talk to the new arrivals and start to hear their stories, people naturally want to help. In areas where there are no refugees, fear and anger are at [their] highest level. So face-to-face introductions are very important.”
A View toward the Future
Not many of us get to vote on ways to end the conflict in Syria. What we do have is the freedom and privilege of extending a helping hand while seeking peace. So we contribute to a better future.
Sometimes our vision of the future can be informed by our understanding of the past. Thus, to take seriously the finding of The Genographic Project, a major National Geographic study, we’re all migrants. Humanity got its start in Africa; our ancestors migrated through India, Siberia, Spain – indeed, across the entire globe. Sometimes under threat they were pushed out of their homelands; sometimes hy were pulled forward by the promise of better things. Whether we call them migrants or newcomers or refugees, without them we’ll never understand the civilization we now enjoy.
What do you think?
* For those wishing to know more about the maps, placemats of maps, and atlases, we recommend visiting http://manywaystoseetheworld.org