The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Considering a Christian Response
Michelle Shappell Harris
Syrian refugees and migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, pass through Slovenia on their way to Germany, 23 October 2015. Photo: Robert Cotič via Wikipedia.
After news of the Ebola outbreak hit last year, concern and discussion seemed centered on our safety as Americans. It felt out of place to me. Yes, it was important to be wise and understand dangers, but as the discussion continued, it seemed misplaced. We were not the ones suffering, and except for medical personnel who traveled to serve, we weren’t in harm’s way.
The current discussions around Syrian refugees remind me of our reaction to Ebola.
And the discussions for me are close to home. After the attacks in Paris, my own Indiana governor has refused refuge to a Syrian family who fled their country in 2011 and who had waited in Jordan for three years for approval to come to the US.
He does not speak for all of us. I am part of a newly formed committee in Fort Wayne created to alleviate the suffering and assist in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Our task, which was difficult before the Paris attacks, seems herculean now as congress considers closing doors entirely to refugees from Syria, because, after all, can these people ever be thoroughly vetted?
It’s true that we have more to fear this time around. This is no biological virus but those with intent and ability and will to harm. There is real danger. But what worries me in our rhetoric and discussions these last weeks is how those who have suffered the most, the millions who have lost everything, have become the victims of our fear.
The numbers on the Syrian war can make our heads spin. Here’s some information from World Vision:
Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011 about a quarter of a million people have been killed while another million have been wounded or permanently disabled. The healthcare, education, and infrastructure of the country have been destroyed.
So twelve million people — the equivalent of half the population of my state of Indiana — have fled their homes. Most are still in Syria, but four million have left their country. They are refugees.
Most refugees are in the region near Syria. About two million are in Turkey. About 630,000 refugees are living in Jordan with host families or in rented accommodation. Over a million are in Lebanon where one in four people is a Syrian refugee. World Vision’s site says:
Many have taken up residence there in communities’ abandoned buildings, sheds, spare rooms, garages, and in tent settlements on vacant land. Conditions are often crowded and unsanitary. Even so, families struggle to pay rent for these spaces.
Less than five percent of Syrian refugees are trying to make their way to Europe. Tens and hundreds of thousands are being resettled in countries like Germany and Sweden.
The numbers are big and difficult to comprehend until the latest news story or a picture bring the tragedy a human face. But there are smaller numbers at play.
The Ten Thousand
Since 2012, the US has accepted 2,174 Syrian refugees.
President Obama has pledged to take ten thousand in the coming year. These ten thousand have become the focus of our national discussion.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refers candidates for US settlement who then go through an extensive vetting process which takes a year and a half or more to complete.
As I’ve read the numbers and considered the journey refugees have taken, I’ve come to conclusions that have led me to contact my political representatives, urging them not to close our doors to the vulnerable.
The Response of the Church
This week I listened to a webinar about the church’s role in the refugee crisis. Gabe Lyons of Q Ideas interviewed Rich Stearns of World Vision and World Relief’s Stephan Bauman. Stephan said this about the ten thousand: “We’re only talking about ten thousand but the message we are broadcasting globally is profound.” I think he’s right.
America is a Christian country....Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are any number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world...
While Middle Eastern and European countries are coming to the aid of millions of desperate people, we are talking about closing our doors to the tiny fraction we have pledged to welcome. We are sending a profound message out to the world.
But in God’s order nothing can substitute for loving people. And we define who our neighbor is by our love. We make a neighbor of someone by caring for him or her.
So we don’t first define a class of people who will be our neighbors, and then select only them as the objects of our love — leaving the rest to lie where they fall. Jesus deftly rejects the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and substitutes the only question really relevant here: “To whom will I be a neighbor?” And he knows that we can only answer this question case by case as we go through our days.
When I consider the history of the church, I know there are times when the church closed her doors, when the response of those who said they were Christ-followers acted based on fear and suspicion and self-protection.
But there are other moments in history too, when those who follow Christ have responded to crisis with love and compassion, often at great personal cost and sacrifice: early church folk caring for victims of the plague, the network of the Underground Railroad of the 1800s, African medical personnel who put themselves on the line for victims of Ebola last year, and those giving practical help through the Middle East and Europe to refugees. The church is beautiful when she comes alongside the oppressed, when she puts aside fear and becomes a neighbor to those who have fallen.
Our Personal Response
Pray for the victims of war and unrest. I’m easily overwhelmed or ambivalent when it comes to the enormous needs in our world and fall easily into praying only for the concerns in front of me. For years, Kenneth Boa’s Face to Face, Praying the Scriptures for Intimate Worship has been instrumental in my prayer life. The guide cycles weekly through subjects of intercession so I regularly pray for those who are oppressed and in need, those who I most easily forget.
#WeWelcomeRefugees has a detailed daily prayer guide for refugees available on their site. Use it in your personal prayer time or as a guide in your small group.
Consider whether there are places in your church community for this kind of prayer. I’ve just begun reading Soong Chan Rah’s: Prophetic Lament: A Call to Justice in Troubled Times. Rah points out that our American corporate worship is celebratory, often neglecting issues of suffering and injustice. Perhaps we need to make space in our corporate worship and small groups for lament and prayer for the broken, whether far away or those close to home.
Listen and Learn.#WeWelcomeRefugees, World Relief, and World Vision have many resources for individuals and groups to understand the crisis and consider our response. Your church or denomination may also have resources.
Get your church involved. #WeWelcomeRefugees is encouraging churches to participate in National Refugee Sunday on December 13. Participating churches will play a short video, pray for the victims of the crisis, and take an offering to support families affected by the Middle East refugee crisis seeking to rebuild their lives. Both World Relief and World Vision have resources available for hosting a refugee Sunday.
The crisis in the Middle East is not going away. My hope is that the contribution of Christ followers to discussion and decision-making would be wise and merciful. Whether or not our government limits resettlement or opens the doors wider, may the response of the church be one of neighborliness and welcome to the refugee or stranger, whether a continent away or in our midst.
Michelle Shappell Harris is pursuing an MFA in creative non-fiction at Ashland University and holds a BS in Elementary Education from Ball State University. After nineteen years working through InterVarsity Link in Gabon and France, she and her family now make their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were she works at The Reclamation Project, coordinating low-cost translation and encouraging friendships across cultural barriers. She and her husband have two children, a dog, and two cats.
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