Response to the Syrian Crisis– Welcoming the Refugee
Written By C.L.S., Missionary in the Middle East
My first experience with refugees came in the summer of 2002. This came about while serving on a short-term missions trip teaching English to Iraqis registered with the UN’s Refugee division (UNHCR). These Iraqis were hoping to be resettled in the U.S., Australia, or Canada, so learning English was a priority for them. Many of the assumptions I had of Iraqi refugees (uneducated, ignorant, scary) were shattered after meeting them and proven to be incorrect over the course of a decade living and ministering alongside various groups of refugees. Instead, I found people steeped in hospitality beyond their means and desperate for help from situations causing them to flee the only home they have ever known, often with only what they could physically carry.
I moved back to Jordan in 2004. For the next ten years, my life and ministry revolved around the plight of refugees – such as the Iraqis flooding into Jordan and later the Syrians streaming into Lebanon. I never intended or aspired to center my ministry on refugees, but when something is staring you in the face, you would have to try hard to look away. Jordan and Lebanon, being neighboring countries to Iraq and Syria, were natural destinations of choice for those fleeing strife and conflict. These countries, however, do not allow naturalization of refugees, meaning a Syrian (no matter how long they are in Lebanon) can never apply for Lebanese citizenship. For this reason, when refugees arrive in Lebanon, they register with the UNHCR in order to gain refugee status in hopes of resettlement to a country where they can eventually gain citizenship. As they wait, a refugee is not allowed to work legally, forcing them to survive on whatever the UNHCR gives them as a monthly stipend. As one can imagine, the current Syrian crisis has caused quite a financial burden on the UNHCR’s resources.
It was clear, particularly in the case of the Syrian refugee crisis that groups of all kinds (NGOs, churches, etc.) were stepping up to supplement what families were getting from the UNHCR. And even more recently, the awareness of the Syrian plight has brought about a cry of injustice in the Western world. The faces of suffering Syrian refugees took a long time to get to the Western Facebook feed, but once it did, it took center stage. And with the spotlight on this crisis, everybody began to offer up an opinion.
To accept Syrian refugees into America or not is a disputed issue. Opinions are as far apart from one another as possible. Some will offer up empty buildings saying the Syrians are welcome to them while others completely refuse to even entertain the idea of allowing them entrance. The latter voice comes from all walks of life, the most vocal perhaps coming from the political scene gracing our screens. But maybe the more subtle and surprising voice has been that of the church. By and large, the American church has chosen to either err on the side of caution – saying the risk is too large – or to remain silent altogether.
I do believe there is something being missed in all of this. The idea of living in safety and security is an appropriate ideal for a nation to uphold and a responsibility of our leaders to work toward. But is this the role and stance of the Church, particularly as it relates to Gospel-centered living and with the mission of making disciples of all nations? What has always been known as “the mission field” is coming to our doorsteps. The church has long applauded missionaries who have counted the cost and set off for distant lands, braving dangerous places all to carry the name of Christ to the unreached. This is the call of the church, not the call of missionaries.
If the church doesn’t stand up and welcome the refugee to our doors, then someone else will. Our opportunity to share Christ with a desperate people will be lost and we will have neglected our call as believers to care for the poor, the needy, and the sojourner. In the eyes of God, our ethnic lines do not define us. We are a community of people, sharing this planet and our task to glorify God with our mouths and our actions includes responding to a crisis of this magnitude with love, grace and sacrifice. I have spent almost my entire adult life in the Middle East, choosing to place myself in what most would consider a danger zone for the sake of taking the Gospel to the nations. Now the nations are coming to us. May we not fear the unknown and unpredictable, but instead embrace the opportunity before us. Let’s be a church ready to welcome the stranger among us and to be the irresistible fragrance of Christ in their midst.