John K. Guiney SJ
‘They are threatening to burn down my house and my neighbours’ houses if all the members of my ethnic group do not move out. What can I do? I have nowhere to go with my children. Do I wait and see or do I run?’
Such is the experience of fear and vulnerability of almost 50 million individuals known as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in our world today.
This happens to people of all nationalities, genders, classes, colours and religions. From Europe to Africa, from Latin America to Asia, flight from persecution and terror is the only option for millions of people.
The plight of refugees and of all people on the move has been of particular concern to the church over the years. The message of Pope John Paul 11 on World Migration Day 1997 speaks clearly, ‘The Church looks with deep pastoral concern at the increased flow of migrants and refugees, and questions herself about the causes of this phenomenon and the particular conditions of those who are forced for various reasons to leave their homeland.
In fact the situation of the world’s migrants and refugees seems ever more precarious. Violence sometimes obliges entire populations to leave their homeland to escape repeated atrocities.’
Psalm 137 is truly evocative of the refugee experience: 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.’ This experience of flight and fear leaves the refugee with a sense of being abandoned and bereft of everything. The journey to find a safe place within the country or crossing borders exposes the person on the move, especially women and children, to all kinds of dangers of violence and rejection.
Pope John Paul 11 took up this predicament again in his 1998 Lenten statement, where he highlighted the Biblical theme of welcoming the stranger. (Deut.10:19, Lev.19:34, Num. 15:29, Lk. 10:27, Lk.4:16-21, Rm. 12:13).
‘An atmosphere of welcoming is increasingly necessary to confront today’s diverse forms of distancing ourselves from others. This is profoundly evidenced in the problems of millions of refugees and exiles…I exhort every Christian to give evidence of his or her personal conversion through a concrete sign of love towards those in need, recognising in this person the face of Christ and repeating as if almost face to face, “I was poor, I was marginalised and you welcomed me” ’.
Openness and hospitality to the visitor is a recurrent theme in the Bible. The example of Abraham, a good Bedouin, who rushes to prepare a restful shade and a refreshing meal for the strangers at the oaks of Mamre, is enlightening. They, subsequently, were revealed as the messengers of God’s promise.
It does not matter whether the guest arrives as arranged or comes unexpectedly in the middle of the night - we must go and seek food from our neighbour and provide for him or her (Mt.15:23, Lk.11:35)
Welcoming the stranger, as a messenger of God, is a key attitude of the Christian community towards those who reach our shores in search of safety and security.
The message of Pope Benedict XVI for the 94th.World Day of Migrants and Refugees, published on 13th January 2008, speaks of the particular problems of young refugees and migrants in refugee camps and in urban settings in our world.
The loss of educational opportunity and the risk of exploitation of young people -especially girls and unaccompanied minors- are of particular concern to the Church. They often fall victim more easily to exploitation, moral forms of blackmail and abuses of all kinds including human trafficking.
The response of Church organizations like Jesuit Refugee Service is to accompany young people in refugee camps and in urban settings. Jesuit Refugee Service is the outreach of the Society of Jesus to refugees and internally displaced people in over 50 countries around the world. The goals of JRS are to accompany, serve and advocate the cause of refugees and it reaches out to refugees in a particular way through education.
I have been working for the past twenty years in the Eastern Africa Region, which includes the countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. This Region contains over eight million refugees and displaced persons and the majority are young people.
Jesuit Refugee Service provides for the educational needs of thousands of young displaced people from pre-school to university level. It gives special care and preference to the education of girls because it recognises that both economic and cultural obstacles block their enrollment and continuity in schools and colleges.
Education is a source of new hope for the future for young refugees, but it is also a means of their protection from all kinds of exploitation.
The most immediate and practical response of every Christian is to welcome the refugee who comes to our shores, because we never know what suffering this person has endured in his/her flight from violence.
In doing this, we can unknowingly, be welcoming an angel of God.
John K. Guiney SJ