Some GOOD News for World Refugee Day - June 20, 2018

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by Rev. Dr. Nancy T. Fox
Chair, The Outreach Foundation Board of Trustees

When we hear that this world of ours holds 65.6 million refugees and forcibly displaced people in 2018, most of us cannot fathom the reality. That massive number becomes more comprehensible when we consider that it is just slightly more than the entire population of France and just slightly less than that of the United Kingdom, this year’s twenty-first and twenty-second most populous countries. One in every 116 people in the world is currently displaced from their home by persecution or violent conflict such as war; over half of them are children. Twenty more are displaced every minute. How many members does your church have? With a little math, you can figure out the equivalent proportion of your own community that would be displaced. 

22.5 million of those displaced have fled their countries, becoming refugees by crossing an international border and registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The rest are still within the borders of their country or unregistered. In Syria, for example, the pre-war population was about 22 million, but now more than a quarter of those – 5.5 million – are refugees. Where have they gone? We have watched on TV as boats and long lines of aspiring asylees have headed towards Europe. In 2016, Europe received about a million. But the vast majority of Syria’s displaced are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In tiny Lebanon, nearly one in three people is a refugee. The UNHCR estimates that 6.6 million more of those displaced are still within Syria, where the war has entered its eighth year and the economy is in shambles.

The raw numbers come upon us as a “shock and awe” assault, unless we have become inured. But it is not until we remember that each of those 65.6 million people has a name and a face and a story, that we begin to feel just a bit of the significance of the world refugee crisis. The names in the cloud art above are among the most common names of refugees worldwide, drawn from online lists of most common names from the major refugee-producing countries. Our God knows them all by name and our Lord Jesus died for each one. Are you privileged to know anyone with these names? I will spare you the sad stories because we have all read or seen many. But below, I will share some stories you probably have not heard, of a very few of the many beautiful things our Lord is doing amidst the tragedy, for our God indeed does work all things together to serve his gracious purposes for those he loves (Romans 8:28).

In recent years, many of our congregations or members have helped a refugee family to resettle in our local communities. Resettlement in the U.S. is a complex process that requires a great deal of time, flexibility, humor, effort, love, connections and finances. Public and private resources have been invested into welcoming these new Americans, and they are giving back to our economy. The U.S. welcomed 84,995 refugees in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which saw the largest number of resettled refugees globally, at a total of 189,300. In FY 2017, the U.S. welcomed only 50,000, and in 2018, the total will be close to only 20,000. Even in 2016, when the total number of refugees resettled anywhere in the world was the highest it had ever been, it still accounted for less than 1% of officially registered refugees. In 2018, it will probably be only .5%. 

Regardless of where we stand politically on immigration as an issue, Christians acknowledge together that each person is created in the image of God with eternal dignity and value, and Christ died for them, whether they know it or not. Most of us who have walked with refugees in their resettlement have found it to be an intensely enriching experience for ourselves as well as for those we’ve welcomed. Resettlement can be as traumatic as the process of leaving one’s country had been, but can also present great potential, hope and new relationships. I am the proud “Auntie” in a couple of families myself. Even as we in the American church follow and obey our Lord in welcoming these strangers, this year on World Refugee Day, as we face greatly reduced numbers of refugees coming to the U.S., I want to lay before us the challenge that the statistics above present. The vast majority of the world’s refugees and displaced will never be resettled. Even while we pray that the war in Syria and the violence in South Sudan and other world crises will wind down, a record number of refugees are in great need right where they are. 

The good news for us is that we have Presbyterian and ecumenical brothers and sisters in Christ in many of those places with large concentrations of displaced and refugees. These sister churches are doing what they can to address the need, and through The Outreach Foundation, which has deep and long-term relationships with these partners, we can come alongside them to help. Our great God is at work in new and surprising ways, and we can join in this work, in Syria and Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, South Sudan and Ethiopia. 

I promised some stories and some good news: 

~ Pastor David Paduil, of the Sudan-American Presbyterian Church in Gallatin, TN, and Outreach staff member Frank Dimmock are currently in western Ethiopia. Members of Pastor David’s congregation, including many “Lost Boys” (now grown), experienced a Bible-based trauma healing workshop themselves in order to also record a translation of the material into the Nuer language for use in pre-literate contexts with current S. Sudanese Nuer refugees. Pastor David has accompanied Frank to represent his congregation in sharing the workshop with Presbyterian Church of South Sudan leaders from the eight S. Sudanese refugee camps in southern Ethiopia to train them to use the recorded materials. In God’s grace, this former refugee has returned to enable healing and hope for others. You may join Frank and Pastor David on this journey via their trip blog HERE.

~ One small Presbyterian church in Syria is bursting at the seams because many Muslims are attending. These Muslims have lost their families in the war and are displaced from their familiar communities and networks of support, but for that very reason are able to go to a Christian church. They are hungry for community and to know the God of Jesus who teaches people to love even their enemies. God is using the terrible disruption of war to enable them to be embraced in a community of God’s love.

~ Our Outreach women’s team met the large family of an eight-year-old girl who was so traumatized by what she saw in Iraq and as the family made their way to refuge in Lebanon that she had not spoken for over a year. The month before our visit, she had participated in a children’s Bible-based trauma-healing workshop, and opened up again to speak her first words. We were sitting in her living room when she came in after school with a young friend and her older sister, and she was speaking so quickly we would never have guessed she was the same silent child had we not seen her photo. 

~ In 2014, John Jock, a dedicated teacher in a school of the Presbyterian Church of S. Sudan, fled from the encroaching war. When his family landed in Gambella Refugee Camp in Ethiopia, John saw a great need. So he followed his call to teach and established preschools in which the little students learned their letters with fingers in the dirt or sticks on the ground under a tree. Soon, their parents joined in and the “schools” found themselves teaching adult literacy as well. The tragedy of living in a refugee camp is bearing fruit for these parents as they have their first opportunity to learn – alongside their little ones! (For the full story, see Rebuilding Hope in South Sudan, 2016 Outreach South Sudan/Ethiopia trip, 2017 Outreach South Sudan/Ethiopia trip.)

~ A very capable civil engineer from Homs, Syria, fled with her family when their home was taken over by ISIS. When Homs was recovered, she and her husband returned to the hard work (assisted by Outreach) of rebuilding their home, their church, their city and their lives. Now, she is proud to be part of her city’s planning team for their 50-year rebuilding effort. Fifty years of rebuilding! That is and will require a miracle of determination and steadfastness. Her civil engagement is part of the church’s witness to God’s life-giving activity in our world. Read more about The Outreach Foundation's relationships with partners in Syria HERE.

~ Many of the churches in Syria and Lebanon are providing skills training such as sewing or handicrafts, providing micro-loans, or setting up small businesses to enable refugees to make an income for their families. They have seen hope and dignity return to faces that had been bereft. One very young widow fled from Syria to Lebanon because she had gone out to the market one day and returned to find that her husband and entire extended family had been killed when a bomb crushed their home. As she fled, she was taken in by a large family for her protection. From a camp in the south of Lebanon, she went to a church to attend a sewing class and also came to know the Lord there. Her life and character were so radically transformed that the family with whom she had traveled also came to the church to know this God who gives such new life and hope. 

The story that the numbers tell us, when we put it together with the stories of individual refugees, drives us back to the biblical story to seek to understand how God sees the situation. We find there God’s invitation to join the work of his redemptive love for the vulnerable of this world, the poor, widows, orphans and strangers. Refugees often fit into all four categories at once. 

Will you join the story? 

  • You could ask to receive Outreach updates about the work with Syrian, Iraqi, or South Sudanese refugees. 
  • You could travel with Outreach to Lebanon or even Syria, Iraq, or Ethiopia. 
  • You could support the work through generous giving by clicking HERE.

Nancy Fox
National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC

World Refugee Day is June 20, but churches can dedicate a Refugee Sunday on either the preceding or the following Sundays…or, really, any Sunday.  Resources are available online at various sites, including:  https://www.pcusa.org/resource/reflection-and-prayer-world-refugee-day/  and http://www.refugeehighway.net/world-refugee-sunday.html