Most people this time of year think about going to the beach or the mountains or to Disney or having a nice staycation at home. Never one to do what everybody else does, next Sunday night, I am hopping on a plane and flying across the ocean so that I can spend spring break in the Middle East. Here’s why:
One of the hottest items in the news for the past several weeks has been the refugee crisis, particularly in Syria, as the government in the U.S. has been embroiled in a political and legal debate about admitting refugees into our country. I’ve never been one to believe what I hear without digging in on my own, so I’ve tried to become more aware of the facts of the situation. As I’ve done that, I’ve found a lot of information about this crisis that’s deeply troubling to me.
Since 2011, civil war in Syria has caused more than million people to flee from their homes. Around 6 million of those people have fled their homes yet stayed within the borders of Syria, and about 5 million have fled the country altogether as refugees.
Sometimes numbers don’t compute into reality in my head. So, just to try to get your head wrapped around that number, imagine for a second that every man, woman, and child, every nursing home resident, every hospitalized person, young and old and everything in between within the city limits of Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Portland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Atlanta, Memphis, and Nashville suddenly had to flee their homes in the middle of the night in order to save their lives and the lives of their families. Every single person. The populations within those city limits combined would get us somewhere in the ballpark of that 11 million number.
About half of the refugees are children. About half of the children still in Syria are no longer enrolled in school, because so many of the schools aren’t safe. There have been over 4,000 attacks reported on schools in Syria. Cluster bombs, bombs filled with smaller projectiles and explosives designed to wreak havoc over wide areas as large as several football fields, have been dropped repeatedly by Syrian jets on crowded school playgrounds filled with Syrian children. As a parent, I can’t even begin to imagine those kinds of conditions, and I can’t think of anything that would stop me from doing whatever I could possibly do to keep my kids safe and to get them out of those circumstances.
About 10% of the refugees who’ve fled have sought asylum somewhere in Europe. Between October 2011 and December 2016, the U.S. has admitted just over 18,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement, which is slightly more than one tenth of one percent (roughly .16%) of the total number of displaced Syrians. Roughly 90% of the people who’ve fled their homes have remained in Syria or ended up in one of Syria’s border countries, most notably Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
The vast majority of refugees end up in refugee camps or as urban refugees within their own country or neighboring countries. They often flee under the cover of night with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and they end up in places where they have poor shelter, limited access to water, sanitation, and food, where they’re not allowed to work in order to provide for their families, where they don’t have quality healthcare, and where they’re often despised, feared, and less than welcomed by the citizens of the countries to which they’ve fled.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says these words: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Refugees, people who’ve fled their homes, their countries, their livelihoods, who’ve left behind their belongings and often even their family members who were too vulnerable to make the trip, embody all the qualities of the people Jesus wanted his followers to love and serve. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They are strangers. They are naked. They are sick. They are confined to refugee camps.
This is likely the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation – there are more refugees in the world right now than at any time since the end of WWII. Sadly, we’re seeing that desperately hurting and vulnerable people, persecuted and rejected people, people who have inherent worth and dignity because they are made in the image of God every bit as much as you and I, people for whom Jesus died, are often being used as political pawns by the leaders on “both sides” of our country in this ongoing debate. It’s difficult to understand and discern fact from fear-based information in a time and a season like this, and often, I’m not sure what to do or what to say.
Here’s what I do know: the times when crisis and pain and devastation are at their worst in the world are the times when followers of Jesus have an opportunity to rise up and be at their best. That invitation, to learn how to share love and hope and grace with people who have been forcibly displaced, abused, and persecuted, is beckoning to me.
So, I am choosing to spend my spring break going to the middle east to meet and hear the stories and learn from these people who have lost everything, to try to understand what’s really happening on the ground in a way that’s unfiltered by our American political system, and ultimately to begin to discern how followers of Jesus like you and I might be able to love them and serve them in their suffering, both here at home and around the globe.
At the end of the day, the call of Jesus on his followers is to welcome the stranger, whether that stranger be next door in our neighborhood or halfway around the world. We have neighbors to love down the street and we have neighbors to love on different continents, and loving each of them well isn’t mutually exclusive. So I’m going to see if I can understand the story of those who we consider “the stranger,” while also becoming a bit of a stranger myself for a few days so that perhaps I can empathize in a new way.
I look forward to sharing what I learn and some of the stories that I hear both while I’m there as circumstances allow and when I return, as well as thinking with you about ways that we might continue to faithfully respond to events and in times like these.
If you’re the praying type, please be in prayer for the small team of people who will be making this trip, for our safety but more importantly that our eyes and hearts would be opened to the ways we can continue to love and serve our neighbors, both near and far.
***In order to prepare for my trip, I have been reading the book Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis, and I highly recommend it. It provides a balanced, faith-based approach to this crisis, and explores it from a variety of angles, sharing statistics and information about the global refugee crisis as well as the process for resettlement as a refugee in the United States. Click here to order a copy and read it along with me. I’d also encourage you to watch the documentary Salam Neighbor, filmed last year in a Syrian refugee camp to get a little more insight into what life is like for those who’ve fled their homes. Click here for more information on that film.
Here are a few other links with helpful information and statistics: