(Note: This letter was originally written for the newsletters of the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches but I wanted to make it available in its entirety to a wider audience.)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the near future our Partnership will be asking for food donations for newly-arrived refugees in our Partnership neighborhoods, in conjunction with the South Hills Interfaith Movement.
I know a number of people have questions about refugees: where they’re coming from, why they left home, why they’re here in the U.S., if their backgrounds have been properly checked. To give brief answers: refugees come from all over: South America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. Here in Pittsburgh the majority have been from the Far East until 2016 when the Middle East began to take the lead. The refugees never wanted to leave home; they were forced to leave by war, natural disaster, persecution, or other life-threatening circumstances. That’s the legal definition of a refugee; as opposed to a ‘migrant’ (someone who travels across borders) or ‘illegal alien’ (someone who crosses our borders without permission). They wanted to come here because, like so many refugees before them, they’ve heard wonderful things about the United States. The background checks before they can enter the U.S take an average of two years, plus more interviews and tests once they’re here.
Those are the facts. But like most things in life, facts don’t tell the whole story.
I have known a number of refugees, and without exception I am better for having known them. One is a classmate by the name of Abraham. Abraham was one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan. When he was a child during the Sudanese civil war, soldiers attacked his village, burned it to the ground, and killed the people. Abraham survived only because he was in the fields tending the cows. He saw his village burning and knew if he went home he would be killed, so he ran. As he traveled east – walking a distance of nearly 300 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia – he met up with other ‘lost boys’ who also survived, and they helped each other. From Ethiopia they were brought to the United States, where they were able to finish their educations, and Abraham trained to become an Anglican priest. He said: “I am going to go back to Sudan and find the men who killed my family and tell them about the love of Jesus.” Abraham is now serving as a Bishop in the Anglican church of South Sudan.
One refugee family I met here in Pittsburgh – an extended family of two brothers, their two wives and many children – are from Aleppo, Syria. They became refugees when their home and city were bombed. They are anxious to learn about their new country, and eager to hear about Jesus, so they invited about a half-dozen people connected to the seminary to visit for dinner. What a spread! Tabbouleh, grape leaves, chicken, salads, naan bread… more than we could possibly eat… followed by tea and coffee. Their elementary-school-age children know more English than their parents, so they carried the evening. And though we couldn’t communicate much, I indicated my appreciation to the one mother who had done all this cooking while very pregnant. She smiled and pointed to her belly and said “American!” – so proud to be the mother of a future American! I haven’t been able to visit again but the family is now hosting an international Bible study in their home every other week, which friends of mine attend.
I could talk about facts and figures… point out that right now there are more than 65 million people in the world who are without a country… but numbers like these are too big to get our minds around. Consider instead the words of one refugee: “you don’t put your children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
I believe this refugee crisis will be the defining moment of our generation. The repercussions of so many homeless people will change the course of world history for decades to come. How we respond to the crisis will determine not only the future of the refugees but our future as well – because care for the stranger is so important to God, and so central to what God requires of His people.
There’s little most of us can do, from where we live, to ease this crisis that’s happening so far away. But what little we can do, we need to do. At a time like this, every act of kindness makes a difference.
Rev. Peg Bowman
A few statistics to think on
Where refugees come from… (in millions)
(notice Colombia, South America, is in the Top Ten) (source: Buzzfeed)
…and where they go (in millions) (source: Buzzfeed)
Refugee travel routes to Europe (source: Human Rights Watch)
Countries that were formerly “destination countries” — like Libya and Jordan — are now becoming source countries themselves.
Syrian refugees accepted into the U.S.
(actual numbers, not thousands or millions) (source: CDC)