This weekend, I helped out at Trinity's New Student Orientation, and in the midst of meeting new people and learning names, I also had the opportunity to do a service project.
This service project took place at Exodus Ministries, a Chicago-area refugee welcoming-and-resettling ministry. While we did not interact with any refugee families, we did learn quite a bit about what a refugee actually is.
Right now, I would encourage you to sit back away from your computer or phone. Put aside your personal feelings and political views.
Imagine being in the middle of a town square, and you've been separated from your family. There are bombs going off left and right; chaos reigns in what was once a peaceful little seaside village. Panic rushes through your blood and you hope against hope that you'll be able to contact your family.
Let that feeling of anxiety and helplessness sink into your mind. That's not even the beginning of what a typical refugee may experience.
Now, you've escaped from that violent town square, holding your children close, maybe even carrying them, and you have absolutely nothing but the clothes on your back or whatever you happened to have with you at the time. If you're lucky, you'll get to go home and grab a few items, but that is very rare.
Then comes decision time. You're in danger. Maybe you're running away from airstrikes, ethnic cleansing, civil unrest, or religious persecution. Whatever the cause is, your life has been changed forever.
Do you stay? Do you go? If you stay, you will certainly die. If you go, you still have a high chance of dying. So, your family takes that chance and you run to whatever the next safe space may be. Finding a safe space takes you days, months, years. You come to various checkpoints where you must bribe officials to let you pass, you let go of your personal space as you sleep in a shelter next to hundreds of other people, and you struggle to make sense of the languages spoken around you.
After all of this, let's say your family is one of the extremely blessed to be chosen to live in the United States. (According to Exodus, only one-half of one percent of all worldwide refugees ever get completely resettled). After passing extensive background checks, you arrive in a small apartment in the Chicago-land area.
You're exhausted. You have been exhausted for years. Running from war, famine, and not to mention doing your best to protect your family. In your old life, you might have been a doctor, a lawyer, a college professor. You may have lived in a big house with lots of maids and a beautiful garden. In your new life, you are starting over completely. You have nothing but what you are wearing. You must learn a new language, because if you do not learn it, you have very slim chances of getting a job and restarting your new life.
This imagination exercise is nothing like being to be an actual refugee, but I hope you have some idea of what our dear brothers and sisters go through daily.
Do not judge the woman on the street who is wearing a sari. It may be the only piece of home she has left. Do not judge the man who speaks heavily accented English. He may know five languages fluently. We do not know the stories of people that we encounter. Refugees overcome insurmountable odds to get to where they are now.
What can you do for refugees in your area? Get connected with a ministry like Exodus. Or see if you can put together a welcome package (sheets, towels, cleaning supplies, and so on) for a newly arrived family. Pray for their new lives, and pray for their families back home. The best response we can have is to love our new neighbors, no matter where they come from.
Do not let fear of "the other" hinder your ability to love. God has created us all in his image. He intended us all to be different; otherwise, we would all be the same. The beauty in our different cultures and languages can bring us together instead of dividing us.
Finally, I hope there is one day when there is no such thing as a refugee. I hope there can be a day when everyone lives in peace and harmony. It is likely that day will only come to pass at the Lord's return, but until then, we can live out our calling to love one another as much as possible.