Refugees and Our Humanity

I once read the story of Hind. “Hind once lived in Iraq, but her family fled to Amman, Jordan because of the war. More specifically, they fled after the kidnapping and brutal killing of her father.

Tearfully, she tells the story of her father’s kidnapping and brutal torture. As I listened to her story, my heart broke for her as I too cried. You see they hung her father and burned him as he hung. Before that killed him, as if that wasn’t enough, they poured acid on his head leaving a hole. They then drug him behind a car and finally beat him to near death.

As you might imagine, they fled their home to find a less violent existence. An existence not so unnecessarily engulfed in violence. Sadly, they couldn’t leave it all behind. The reality of her father’s murder haunts Hind. Understandably, she has several psychological issues and her family has to keep constant watch over her to prevent her suicide.”

Her story is more prevalent than we really want to allow ourselves to believe. If anything, her story is not even among the worst. The lives of tens of millions of people around the world are threatened daily by conflict, ethnic violence, drought, and natural disaster. Families are displaced every day in our world and frequently spend year after year as refugees; homeless – with little access to the basic necessities of life.

A few years ago, Church World Services, asked me to attend their Summit on Immigration in Washington, D.C. I heard story after story about the horrific and difficult lives of refugees straight from the mouths of the very people who had suffered. One that stood out for me came from an undocumented immigrant who had been aggressively confronted about coming to America and taking away American’s jobs. I thought her response was exceptional. She said, “I didn’t come here because I wanted a job… I came here because I wanted to live.”

Hopefully, not surprisingly, the core teaching of most world religions is compassion. It speaks to our humanity and the connectedness of life. As you might imagine, that should have quiet an impact on the spiritual view on refugees and immigration. The Dalai Lama says that it speaks to the need to put the interests of immigrants, the needs of humanity itself, before the needs of countries or even continents. It seems to me that that is a pretty powerful spiritual statement on immigration and refugees, particularly when you consider that it comes from a man who has been in exile for 58 years.

In the U.S. we must also realize that our family histories are rooted in immigration (some by choice, some by necessity, some by force). It should be no surprise that Lady Liberty proclaims at her base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. It should be no surprise because this nation truly is a giant melting pot. Our diversity is one of our biggest strengths and there was a time in our history when we more fully realized it and lived into it. To honor that history, that tradition, I believe we must once again value our immigrant heritage and change our immigration policy to reflect that perspective.

Honestly, that’s part of what made CWS’s Immigration Summit so compelling. Imagine a few hundred people who truly “get it” gathered together to not only value our immigrant roots but to work toward a U.S. policy that does the same. It was a weekend full of immigrant stories, supporting data on how immigration reform is not only something the majority of Americans want but also something that positively impacts our economy. One of the speakers, Dr. De La Torre, added the helpful perspective that immigration reform is about more than just hospitality (which many religions encourage) – it is about restitution for those who helped build this nation and its economy. It was pretty powerful stuff.

The exclamation point on our first day was a speech by the then President of North Carolina’s NAACP, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II. To call a speech by Dr. Barber a “speech” is to sell short the prophetic voice he brings to the conversation. What he gave was more of a sermon slash rally call. He reminded us that the issue of immigration is not an issue of red versus blue or Republican versus Democrat. It is an issue of right versus wrong, of moral versus immoral. He reminded us that it is “just mean to not share with people what they have helped build; how dare we be mean.” He reminded us that the time is now for immigration reform and, in doing so, he set the stage for the day of lobbying that would follow.

I’m sure that our day of lobbying swayed very few minds on Capitol Hill – but immigrant voices were heard and it was made undeniably clear that they have an abundance of allies here in the U.S. We may or may not have impacted a paradigm shift in immigration reform but, in many ways, we did something more important.

We were able to share stories of the struggle of immigrants with those who create the laws which impact them. We helped show that immigration reform is more about people and less about policies. We planted seeds. Seeds of hope, love and justice. Seeds of equality, compassion and restitution. They may not be trees of reform today but we can go back and water them, nurture them, tend to them and I am certain they will inevitably become giant oaks of welcome, inclusion and new life whose shade and shelter are a reflection of the highest values of our nation. They will be trees with roots which rest deep in our heritage as a nation as well as our spiritual identities.
A key strategy for getting there is educating people about the realities of immigrants and refugees. Connecting with there stories and humanizing them rather than demonizing them. It means seeing our connectedness, seeing reflections of ourselves in story the of Hindand her father, in the immigrants who live in our town, in the 2.7 million refugees in Afghanistan, the more than one-million people displaced in each South Sudan and Somalia, in the 60 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes (#ers from UNHCR).

But it should not end there. There are many other kinds of displacements that make us refugees and we should be able to extend our humanity to them as well. To the young people who take to the dangerous streets in search of refuge from abusive parents. To people in the hospital, displaced from home and anxious about the future. To older people, unable physically or mentally to live at home any longer, who experience exile in the new and unfamiliar places to which they have had to go. The reality is that all of us either have or will or are experiencing some kind of displacement – we are all connected, we are all refugees of one sort or another.

Sadly, the popular meme widely shared on social media every Christmas still rings true – Jesus and his family, fleeing for his life from King Herod, would have been turned away in the U.S., or would have been stuck in a detention center, perhaps for years, even though the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees “specifically bars countries from punishing people who have arrived directly from a country of persecution.”

Not only that, looking to the US response to Cuban refugees, we would try and stop him from getting here by turning his leaky boat around so we could avoid our legal humanitarian obligations that would begin were he to make landfall. We would talk about the flood of refugees… although, based on the most recent census, we actually accept less than 2½ % of the world’s refuges.

This message is not meant to be a political debate about refugees. This is about the very fabric and nature of our society and our humanity. The way we, the wealthy of the world, treat refugees shows how far we have fallen. Let us not forget that not only are we all connected, but we are spiritual refugees. Not only is it our spiritual heritage, but it is the reality of being progressive and spiritual in a nation dominated by evangelical Christians.

If we call ourselves spiritual, if we recognize our connectedness, if we are truly in touch with our humanity, we are compelled to respond. We must never forget, in many ways, we are all seeking some sort of refuge. If we can see that, if we can believe that, we should see that in our connectedness, the pain and suffering of one is the pain and suffering of all – but if we work together we can begin to build places of justice and peace here on earth. And perhaps we can once again proclaim to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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