Most of us hadn’t given much thought to Syria.
In fact, before 2011, if we heard the name through our relief and development agency Mennonite Central Committee, it was a location of safety for Iraqis fleeing violence in their country. But the protests of the Arab Spring didn’t go over so well in Syria, and by 2012, MCC’s partners in the region were pleading, “Please do not forget the Syrian people.”
With each passing year, MCC broadcast urgent but hopeful stories from the region: a Syrian Orthodox youth leader from Damascus worries about the toll of bombing on children’s psyches; a Syrian girl sheltering in Lebanon attends “Hope and Light school,” praying that her missing father might return; emergency food distribution enables families to survive another season in desperate straits.
Still, it wasn’t until a heartbreaking photo from the Mediterranean headlined news worldwide – a two-year-old child washed up like a doll on a beach – that we began to ask, “What can we do?”
For many, the answer has been to sponsor a family.
As churches rushed to MCC for help with the sponsorship process, not only did we discover that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, but that thousands of people are caught in the cogs – not only the millions from Syria we heard so much about, but many from countries we haven’t. Countries like Eritrea, Burma, Bhutan, DR Congo and Colombia took root in our consciousness for the first time as we began to imagine a family displaced from there who would soon come here.
Wallets opened; furniture, dishes and clothing poured in.
We were ready to provide.
“What it means to be a refugee, in some ways, is to lack a place in the world where one’s actions and words have meaning. It’s to be treated as someone who doesn’t count.”
That’s how PhD student and researcher on migration Craig Damian Smith puts it on CBC’s Ideas from the Trenches.
This is why we need to act. We don’t believe anyone is worthless. As Christians, we believe God’s image rests on each one of us; we all have value. This is why evangelicals oppose abortion, why Anabaptists oppose war, why people of faith are concerned about the government removing restrictions around euthanasia. Everyone counts.
“A refugee is a person who doesn’t have a home; doesn’t have a community,…[isn’t] able to make claims on other people,” says Smith.
Our MB Confession of Faith says that we are created to live in “mutually helpful relationship with each other.” We talk about accountability and community; it’s in our nature to need each other both for positive identity and critical feedback. Everyone needs connection.
People like us
“If every church or synagogue or neighbourhood took one family and just welcomed them into that existing community, that would be huge,” Mary Jo Leddy suggests during the same radio program. For 20 years, she has shared her life with refugees and asylum seekers at Romero House in Toronto. In so doing, she has learned the simple power of taking time to see another person.
Our social system provides a lot of supports, but it doesn’t provide friends. “Community” is part of many of our church names. Will we share that hope of relationship through our lives?
My friend Carol does. While she was growing up in a large Mennonite Brethren family in Saskatchewan, her family supplied a trailer across the yard for a Hmong family the churches and rural community had sponsored from Laos. Her parents demonstrated generosity and hospitality, making a home for this family just as Carol’s father had been welcomed after his family’s flight from Russia.
Now Carol is the example as she gives sacrificially of her time to the refugee family who lives next to our church…and to their friends….and so on.
“How many churches do we have in this city?” she asks. “If each one would come around a refugee family in friendship, they’d all be supported.”
And, we would develop transformative relationships that would teach us new things about Jesus too.
“People can’t see them (refugees) as people like themselves,” says Smith.
The power of the photograph of the drowned child was that it helped us to see a refugee as a person like ourselves. Parents and grandparents saw their own children on that beach. Others finally saw the humanity that numbers couldn’t convey.
What can we do? We can allow the lifelight of Christ to burn away the darkness of fear and to illuminate the faces of God’s children who have lost hope. We can be friends.