“Love them as yourself, because you were immigrants”

[This is a pre-pub version of an article that appeared in the April 2016 edition of The Christadelphain magazine (p. 161-163). The statistics will have changed, and some of the resources might have become obsolete, but the principles are still true and useful.]

This article relates the experiences of refugees to those of God’s people, and suggests practical ways God’s people can help refugees.

Last year (i.e., 2015), more than a million people — men, women, children, families — left their home countries and arrived in Europe.1 Despite harsh winter weather, the flow has shown no sign of abating2 — more than 82,000 people already have arrived so far this year.3 Many of them have made dangerous journeys from even more dangerous places, often countries torn apart by war, persecution, and terror.4 The majority of them5 take the only route they can, crossing the Mediterranean in small, over-crowded and unequipped boats.6 More than 3,770 people drowned in 2015 trying to reach the EU in this way.7 And it’s ‘looking like 2016 could be another grim, record-breaking year when it comes to the number of migrants and refugees who die or go missing in the Mediterranean Sea. Just eight days into the new year, 46 migrants and refugees’ had already been reported dead or missing.8 The enormity of the stats is staggering, as are the details. A photo of a dead child — Alan Kurdi — who was washed up on a Turkish beach has been seen the world over. Sadly, although now the most well-known, he certainly won’t be the only child to have drowned in this insatiable Sea.9

Other people trek hundred of miles,10 or try to find passage in lorries.11 The fate of too many of these people is as horrifying as those who drown falling from the rickety boats: 71 people (including four children, the youngest a year old) suffocate to death in the back of a meat truck;12 people crushed under lorry wheels;13 murdered;14 raped.15

The people making these journeys don’t want to be doing them. They’re driven to it. Imagine a situation ‘where crawling into a lorry or over wire designed specifically to shred human flesh is better than where you are and certainly better than where you have’ come from.16 “Our country is a military dictatorship,” explains one refugee. “If I go back, I will be killed”.17

What’s happening in and around Europe is only part of the sad picture of a broken world. In 2013, the number of refugees worldwide exceeded 50 million. This was the first time there had been that many refugees since World War II. Only a year later, the number ‘surged to nearly 60 million … that is roughly equal to the population of the United Kingdom’ — a nation’s worth of people have been displaced.18

In many ways, the experiences of the people caught up in a life like this are far removed from our own. However, our heritage connects us to the plight of such people.

Within the media coverage of the crisis, a Jewish man in his 90s telephoned a BBC radio show19 to give his perspective. A previous caller had expressed the view that the crisis wasn’t serious and that people needn’t be engaged with helping the refugees. When asked what he thought about such views, the Jewish elder put it simply: “Well, obviously they don’t know what they are talking about. It’s as simple as that”. His experience as a Kindertransport survivor had taught him first hand of the horrors of being a refugee, and also of the kindness of people who acted to help him and many others like him. This old man knew that these refugees, caught up in a crisis larger than even the one he had been in, were in need of help.

The day before Francis Steiner spoke on the radio, another Jew — Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis — was also interviewed by the BBC about the refugee crisis:20

In our community there are thousands of Jewish people in the UK today who either are refugees or are children or grandchildren of refugees. We are familiar with this plight and with this problem. And there are many of us who forever will be grateful to the UK Government for opening the doors of this country to us. So therefore we identify strongly and we call upon others to identify strongly with this deep humanitarian, urgent need right now.

Because of his heritage — the heritage of his people, the Jews — he, and other Jews like him, could empathise with the refugees caught in the current crisis. And, because of his empathy, he was spurred on to help.

The rabbi didn’t mention it, but the history of the Jews as refugees goes back much further than the modern history of the World Wars. The Jewish people have experienced life as refugees when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians and, before them, the merciless Assyrians. There is a long list of refugees we are familiar with from the scriptures: Esther; Nehemiah; Ezra; Ezekiel; Daniel; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Ezekiel; David; Naomi; Moses. The list goes right back to the parents of the Hebrews, Abraham and Sarah, and stretches the other way, too, into the lives of our Lord himself, who fled from an evil ruler, and our brothers and sisters in the early ecclesia.21

In fact, Israel as a whole knew the bitterness of being like refugees, strangers in a strange land. God reminds them of this fact time and again: “You yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:29, nasb; cf. 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19).

Both Francis Steiner and Ephraim Mirvis were tapping into a very deep vein of Jewish thought and culture. When the Chief Rabbi said, “We are familiar with this plight and with this problem”, he was speaking truly Jewish words. Likewise when he said that, because of familiarity with the problem of being a dispersed people, the Jewish people had to act and help people who are caught up in the current refugee crisis. This is what Moses taught the Israelites, saying, “You, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19, nlt). The Jews were to show love to foreigners because they, the Jews, had been foreigners, displaced from their home, and knew of the hardships that that brought.

It wasn’t just a shared history of hardships, though, that was to drive the Jews to care for displaced people. Their experience of salvation was also to spur them on to love and good works. The Jews were to love strangers because God had loved them, the Jews, when they were strangers in Egypt. After a command that the Israelites care for strangers, and before a list of practical ways to help strangers, God says “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing” (Deut. 24:18, nasb). Care for foreigners because God cared for you.

Since calling on the name of the Lord, we have become part of God’s people, grafted in to the Jewish people (Rom. 11). This ancestry of refugees is not just Francis Steiner’s and Ephraim Mirvis’s. It now belongs to us, too — or, rather, we belong to it. Like the Chief Rabbi, we can also say, “We are familiar with the plight and with the problem of being refugees”. Like the children of Israel, we are to be driven on by both our history of belonging to a displaced people and our experience of salvation. We know the horrors and discomforts of what it’s like to be displaced (cf. Eph. 2:11-12), so we are driven to help those who are also displaced. And we know the wonder and joy of what it’s like to be saved from peril (cf. 2:13-19), so we are driven to provide for those who are in difficulty still.

Here, then, are a few practical suggestions of how, driven on by our history of displacement and our experience of salvation, we can help in the current refugee crisis.22

Pray

The crisis is complex and large. It is daunting. And we are small and weak. Our God, however, is the Almighty for whom nothing is impossible (Mat. 19:26). He can change governments and help individuals (Dan. 4:25; Acts 27:22ff.). The world is his, and he loves it (Ps. 24:1; John 3:16). The brokenness of the world saddens him and his son; he does not enjoy people dying (11:35; Ezek. 18:23). In short, God is both powerful and loving and he can act to help in any situation in the world (Ps. 62:11-12; 22:28). So, ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:2-4, NIV).

Give

Millions of pounds have already been spent on helping people in this crisis, and millions more will be needed.23 Some suggested organisations to give to include: Save the Children; Red Cross Europe; Migrant Offshore Aid Station; International Rescue Committee; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR); Refugee Action; Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Boarders); Refugee Council; Unicef.24 Information about how they help and how you can donate can be found on their websites. For brief summaries of the work they do in relation to this crisis, see the following newspaper articles:

  • V. Richards, ‘5 practical ways you can help refugees trying to find safety in Europe’ (02/10/15) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/mb8JP5
  • M. Weaver, ‘Refugee crisis: what can you do to help?’ (03/10/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/4f2ZBa

I’ve volunteered with, and can recommend, Help Refugees (http://www.helprefugees.org.uk), Calais Kitchens (http://www.calaiskitchens.net) and Refugee Community Kitchen (http://refugeecommunitykitchen.com). Also, see the work of Citizens UK’s Refugees Welcome (https://www.refugees-welcome.org.uk), Refugee Action (http://www.refugee-action.org.uk), and the Refugee Council (http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk).*

For advice on giving safely, see the UK government’s ‘Safer giving advice for Syria’ (08/04/13): http://goo.gl/W5Jsiv

Welcome

The UK Government, for instance, has said it will take in thousands of refugees;25 other governments are doing similarly. When the refugees arrive we, as individuals and collectively as ecclesias, can welcome them among us. ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ (Lev. 19:34, ESV). Making a stranger feel welcomed doesn’t mean just saying hello. It means supporting them, so they don’t feel isolated or abandoned. This will take effort and creativity.

For information about, and organised opportunities to, befriend migrants/refugees, see https://www.refugees-welcome.org.uk/mentor (in Birmingham, also see the Birch Network: http://birchnetwork.org/family-befriending).*

Volunteer

It has sometimes been everyday, ordinary folk who have been helping in the refugee crisis while governments have been slow to respond.26 TimeBank has some suggestions for where people can volunteer: http://timebank.org.uk/idea/refugees-or-asylum-seekers (more generally, see http://gov.uk/volunteering/find-volunteer-placements).

I’ve volunteered with Help Refugees (http://www.helprefugees.org.uk), Calais Kitchens (http://www.calaiskitchens.net) and Refugee Community Kitchen (http://refugeecommunitykitchen.com), all of which I’d recommend, if they still need support (when I volunteered, they all worked out of the same warehouse in Calais, so it was easy to move around the three of them).*

Provide a home

If you own a family-sized rental property, you could register to offer it as a home for a Syrian refugee family (the EU and the Local Housing Allowance help with the rent). For more information, see http://citizensuk.org/help_find_homes_for_syrian_refugees [link no longer works. Perhaps see the following instead: https://www.refugees-welcome.org.uk/calling-landlords/%5D

There may also be opportunities to provide accommodation in your own home. If you are in Birmingham, for example, see the Birch Network:* http://birchnetwork.org/hosting For other UK locations, the following link might provide a place to start:* https://www.refugees-welcome.org.uk/mentor/

Foster

There are thousands of unaccompanied children who are caught in the refugee crisis. There has been a growing number of people who are saying they could help by fostering some of them.27 However, due to the number of unaccompanied children, there have been calls for more people to help.28 Our community has a history of caring for refugee children.29 No doubt this is challenging, but perhaps this is another time we can help. For more information, see http://homeforgood.org.uk/respond and, more generally, http://fostering.net/could-you-foster

Finally, we fall to our knees again and pray.


Notes

Featured image: Georgios Giannopoulos, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

1. BBC, ‘Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts’ (18/02/16) on BBC: http://goo.gl/42Scxj

2. P. Strickland, ‘Refugee boats to Greece persist despite winter’s chill’ (02/12/15) on Al Jazeera: http://goo.gl/uvTYlo

3. BBC, op. cit. This article was published on 18/02/16; the figures will have increased by now.

4. R. Scammell, ‘Surviving the perils of a Mediterranean boat crossing’ (18/05/15) on Al Jazeera: http://goo.gl/4kQfic

5. P. Kingsley, ‘Over a million migrants and refugees have reached Europe this year, says IOM’ (22/12/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/5UnyKd

6. L. Dearden, ‘Syrian refugee tells how he survived boat sinking in waters where Aylan Kurdi drowned’ (03/12/15) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/pJNMWR

7. BBC, op. cit.

8. L. Westcott, ‘46 Migrants, Refugees Already Have Perished in Mediterranean in 2016’ (08/01/16) on Newsweek: http://goo.gl/YO3Zwx

9. Horribly, an ‘average of two children have drowned every day crossing the eastern Mediterranean Sea since September 2015’ (J. Lowe, ‘Two Migrant Children Dying Every Day In Mediterranean Sea’ (19/02/16) in Newsweek: http://goo.gl/lEFDnG

10. R. Akkoc, ‘Migration crisis: Desperate refugees escape camps and start a 110-mile trek to Austria’ (04/09/15) on The Telegraph: http://goo.gl/CbhhMd

11. S. Flynn, ‘The Deadly Journey Faced by Refugees in Europe’ (16/12/15) on GQ: http://goo.gl/4rmcDB

12. G. Witte and A. Faiola, ‘Migrant deaths on land and at sea strengthen calls for change in Europe’ (28/08/15) on The Washington Post: http://goo.gl/FcsJ2X

13. J. Lichfield and J. Rush, ‘Calais crisis: Man crushed to death by lorry after migrants attempt to enter Channel Tunnel’ (29/07/15) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/JpdBPk

14. M. Milmo, ‘Special report: An immigration crisis on Britain’s doorstep in Calais’ (15/02/14) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/gJVnFu

15. J. Moore, ‘Women Refugees Fleeing Through Europe Are Told Rape Is Not A Real Issue’ (21/10/15) on BuzzFeed News: http://goo.gl/dSBdyz

16. S. Moore, ‘The grassroots response to the refugee crisis should shame the British government’ (02/09/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/1hFs8u (This references was accidentally edited out of the article by the team at The Christadelphian when it went to publication — apologies to Suzanne Moore and The Guardian.)

17. D. Chazan, ‘Calais crisis: ‘If I go back, I will be killed’, says migrant caught in back of a lorry’ (06/09/15) on The Telegraph: http://goo.gl/B2yrjY

18. G. Witte, ‘New U.N. report says world’s refugee crisis is worse than anyone expected’ (18/06/15) on The Washington Post: http://goo.gl/oGPmzl

19. Any Answers?, presented by Anita Anand (05/09/15) on BBC Radio 4 (the relevant part starts at about 14’26’’)

20. Today (04/09/15) on BBC Radio 4 (a clip from the programme might be available online, with the relevant part starting at about 4’41’’: http://goo.gl/VrxUf4).

21. International Association for Refugees, ‘Refugees in the Bible’ (2015): http://goo.gl/b65vgt (PDF)

22. Adapted from suggestion by K. Kandiah, ‘The refugee crisis: A call to compassion’ (05/09/15) on Christian Today: http://goo.gl/OKZKhe

23. BBC, ‘Migrant crisis: UK pledges extra £100m aid for Syrians’ (23/09/15) on BBC: http://goo.gl/S98yci

24. V. Richards, ‘5 practical ways you can help refugees trying to find safety in Europe’ (02/10/15) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/mb8JP5; M. Weaver, ‘Refugee crisis: what can you do to help?’ (03/10/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/4f2ZBa For advice on giving safely, see the UK government’s ‘Safer giving advice for Syria’ (08/04/13): http://goo.gl/W5Jsiv

25. P. Wintour, ‘UK to take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, David Cameron confirms’ (07/09/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/CWTZLJ

26. S. Moore, op. cit.; A. Withnall and M. Dathan, ‘Revealed: the public’s extraordinary response to the Syrian refugee crisis — and how it shames David Cameron’ (23/09/15) on The Independent: http://goo.gl/gprCXS

27. J. Rogers, ‘The government must match public support for fostering refugees’ (15/09/15) on The Guardian: http://goo.gl/EJGU2G

28. The Fostering Network, ‘More foster carers needed to support unaccompanied refugee children’ (07/09/15) on The Fostering Network: http://goo.gl/BwB5pN

29. I.e., with the Kindertransport. See, e.g., V. Gissing, Pearls of Childhood (London: Robson Books, 1994), p. 87; the ecclesia in Knowle and Dorridge, ‘Final Message from a Kindertransport Mother — Murdered in Death Camp’ (21/05/15) on Dorridge Hope: http://goo.gl/WyLEUL

*These were added post-publication (thanks to the Joiners for the link to Refugees Welcome).