I’ve heard it said, “It’s not the millions that move us, but the one.” The crisis in Syria has certainly proved this to be true. The image of Aylan, the child who washed up on a beach in Turkey, tipped the world’s collective conscious toward empathy. Aylan gave us a glimpse into the pain of those forced to flee their homes. We identify with his mother, sister, brother, aunt, or cousin. Personally, I feel the anguish of his father.
As Christians, we must embrace the plight of refugee families in what is being called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Nearly half of Syria’s 22 million people is thought to be displaced or killed: 7.6 million Syrians are IDP’s within the country, and another 3.8 million have sought refuge in neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.
We know millions more call themselves refugees, not just Syrians — about 60 million globally. We are living in an age of unprecedented migration of people, a global exodus. Now is the perfect time for Christians to stand together and fight this injustice. It is our crisis, too.
Rising to the biblical call to “welcome the stranger”
As I talk with Christians and non-Christians alike across the country, I encounter two prevailing emotions about this crisis. The first is compassion. People are rising to the biblical call to “welcome the stranger,” an indispensable ethic for anyone choosing to follow Jesus of Nazareth, who once set out on the refugee trail himself. Jesus calls us to serve the least of these, saying, “When I was a stranger, you let me in” (Matthew 25:35).
In addition, churches are also showcasing their compassion and hospitality by coming together to reach out to refugee families in Fort Worth, Seattle, Boise, Durham, Chicago, Los Angeles, Highpoint, Atlanta, and so many other cities. As Christians, we must provide a much-needed sense of community to refugees who are often forced to abruptly leave friends and family behind.
Almost every day I hear about a church, neighborhood, or community opening their arms to a refugee family. These people are heroes. Why? They have decided to open their hearts, their minds, and even their homes to refugees. As they do, the language of “refugee” quickly fades away, replaced by “brother” or “sister” — and eventually “American.”
This compassion is not just in the U.S., but also worldwide. In fact, Pope Francis called upon Catholic churches in Europe to each take in a refugee family. Communities take notice when people live out their faith in the public square.
Fear is understandable, but it’s not Christian
While compassion is the first emotion I have personally witnessed as a result of this crisis, the other emotion is fear. Fear rises in us when we talk about welcoming Syrians or Iraqis in the United States. Many are concerned about creating a gateway for terrorism. Their fear is understandable; however, it is not Christian as we all must trust in the Lord and not live in fear.
In addition, a bit of history and data can go along a way to assuage concerns. For example, did you know that the United States has resettled about 784,000 refugees since 2001? And in those 14 years, only three people have been arrested for terrorist activity, two of whom were trying to send money to terrorist organizations abroad, and a third made threats that were later deemed not credible.
In fact, World Relief, the organization I serve, has resettled more than 260,000 refugees since 1978. None have been terrorists. There is good reason for this: the vetting process of refugees who qualify for resettlement is extensive. The FBI, State Department, national intelligence agencies, and Department of Homeland Security are all involved in a process that takes upwards of 18-24 months with significant clearance hurdles.
Refugees are not the threat that some try to make them out to be. Most people believe refugees are a burden to the countries that receive them. But the opposite is true. It turns out that refugees are a good investment, too. Studies show that welcoming refugees often has a positive effect on a host country’s economy and wages.
Germany is being talked about at the new “land of the free and the brave” because they are accepting upwards of 800,000 Syrians. While we applaud Germany’s moral courage, they are also smart. Their decision is as much economic as moral.
We all have our own refugee story
Finally, today’s global exodus is also personal. We all have our own stories as immigrants or refugees, whether first generation or several removed. I recently found my wife, Belinda, staring at a photo of her grandfather, Alexis Koshanov, or “Grandpa Alex” as Belinda knew him.
Alexis fled Lithuania just before Hitler’s whisper campaign, but was turned away at Ellis Island because he was Jewish. He later immigrated into the United States via Canada, but his sister died in Auschwitz and his brother barely survived Dachau. Today’s new exodus reminds Belinda of another exodus not long ago: “I am a refugee, just two generations removed,” she said, tears filling her eyes
The solution to the refugee crisis is complex, but as Christians, we must do our part to help those who are fleeing the turmoil in their own lands by opening our arms and our hearts to them, by warmly welcoming them into our country and by empowering them to find the tools and solutions they need to build and maintain a prosperous new life in America.
We are at our best not when we turn our backs or demand our rights or talk about walls, but when we welcome the refugee, the sojourner, the immigrant — with Alyan’s image engraved on our hearts and Alex’s history etched into our memories. We are at our best — as a people, a Church, a community, and a nation — not when we fear but when we love.
Lead image of refugees at the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary on their way to Germany. Courtesy of Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock.com.