“Teacha!” He loped across the pavement to me where I stood shaded beneath the tailgate of my high-clearance minivan.
At 6’5” and change, he couldn’t fit. In fact, the two of us are a caricature of opposites. His skin is the stuff of 80% cacao chocolate. Parts of mine are Cinderella-white (though Africa worked hard to darken me permanently with sun spots). Like his Sudanese ancestors, he’s built like a marionette; still, when he throws that rangy arm over my shoulder, he dwarfs my genetically Swiss shoulders and barrel chest.
But we’re friends. And I’m immensely proud of him. On scholarship to Bible school, he recently completed his first term, working hard in his second language of English. He aims to be a pastor for his people.
It’s hard for me to reconcile my friend with the stereotypical image of a refugee. It’s even more befuddling, admittedly, as I think about the controversy surrounding people like him. He’s never seen a day of his life where his nation’s at peace—and yet he is a man of peace, who wants to lead his people in peace.
Honestly, when I think of refugees—it’s not necessarily someone wrapped in a hijab (though they’ve been friends, too); it’s not even a child stretching his thin arm out of a dinghy. It’s people like “Sarah” who come to mind, my student who’s trained in Human Resources. Or “George”, who’s a civil engineer, and has taught at a local grammar school since he relocated to his new nation—though his parents are still in a refugee camp. Or the three other pastors in my class who’d stay after, asking questions and cracking jokes.
“A Narrative of Fear”
My kids frequently tussled about who got to come with me to the refugee center. A part of me was tickled pink by my blond sons reluctantly/happily swallowed up in the arms of towering, adoring refugee women.
So when my kids ask me to explain why their home nation is making laws against refugees, it’s challenging for me to explain.
I ask them to remember all the videos we watched together from 9/11, when tears rolled down my cheeks and onto the collars of their shirts at the elaborate deceit and wickedness to maximize iconic loss of life. I try to explain how smaller attacks around our country and around the world are causing people to feel so afraid for what our world is becoming. Islam—and most refugees—are an easy target as we wrestle to feel safe at school; in a mall; on a plane. (Christianity Today addresses here the narrative of fear surrounding the refugee crisis.)
But then I tell them of a professor of mine, who speaks Arabic for his archaeological digs. Soon after 9/11 at an IHOP, my professor noticed a cashier with an Arabic accent and oddly pale skin. When my professor greeted him quietly in Arabic, a single tear rolled down his cheek—revealing that the man, fearful for his safety, was wearing makeup to disguise his skin tone.
There’s fear on both “sides.”
Yet Ed Stezter of Christianity Today explains startlingly,
There is a 1 in 3.64 billion per year chance that you will be killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist in a given year. If those odds concern you, please do not get in a bathtub, car, or even go outside. And, for contrast, there were 762 tragic murders in Chicago alone last year compared to 0 people who were killed last year (or ever since the mid-70s) by a refugee-perpetrated terrorist attack. (emphasis added)
(Um, for perspective–cows kill 20 people per year.) To further this point: USA Today states that 78% of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States were women, or children under the age of 12–the estimated 18,000 by the end of last year still a tragically small amount of the 5 million left homeless. (I also found these statistics eye-opening about committed Christians’ response to the refugee crisis.)
Unfortunately, some of the most grave, horrific decisions in our history have hinged on this powerful emotion of fear–particularly of those culturally or racially different. We stop seeing people in the context of their stories and flatten them into a label on which to cast our fears.
An Unlikely Immigrant
I was recently moved by these words:
Our Savior came into the world dependent on hospitality, from the moment he was born in a borrowed manger until he was buried in a donated tomb. What is more, Jesus longs to meet us face to face in the disguise of the stranger, the guest at our door….
Laws don’t dictate how we are to treat immigrants, but Scripture does.
Now clearly, we are still called to respect the governments God’s put in place (see Romans 13). But I still find salient the point that we take our cues on the foreigner from Scripture: not our fears (think of Ananias welcoming what he thought was a murderous Saul). Not the government. We take our cues from our own status as refugees: Those of us who are Gentiles were foreigners to God’s people…and God took us in, clothed us, and became our true home.
I appreciated the words of Tim Breene, CEO of World Relief, quoted in Christianity Today: “World Relief does not believe compassion and security have to be mutually exclusive. While it is wise to always work to increase effectiveness, a lengthy and complete ban is not necessary to meet our commitment to security, transparency and compassion” (emphasis added). It’s critical for us to be wise; to continue to intensively vet those coming into our country (see the process here).
Yet what if helping refugees…revitalized us? What if–as my family’s experienced–opening our own doors to refugees detaches us from our fear, propels us toward compassion for other mothers and children and fathers, illuminates our perspectives, requires us to share, and help us know more of God?
Is [the fast I, God, have chosen for you] not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst…The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong…
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
I wonder. If the story of the Good Samaritan were retold today, is it possible it would be our own political enemies who might do the rescuing?
In our own homes and in the greater community of our nation–may we move forward not in fear, but in compassionate, informed wisdom and faith.
If you’re interested, consider signing We Welcome Refugees’ solidarity statement.
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