“I’m sorry to bother you at the weekend,” the journalist wrote, “it’s just that you guys are on the front page of The Times.”
And sure enough, so we were!
That would explain the new followers on Twitter, the flurry of messages from the media, and the generous surge in emails from regular people who wanted to know how to host refugee families.
It was just a few words in a bigger article but we were delighted to have been quoted. A great friend whatsapped me a photo of herself with The Times, proof of having made a special exception to her rule of never giving money to the Murdoch press. More people read The Times than the Guardian, pointed out another, you got behind enemy lines!
As we responded to various enquiries across the weekend, we smiled. ‘A spokeswoman from the charity Refugee Support Network’ makes us sound very big and important for what is, in reality, an organisation of seven (mainly part time) staff, with the smallest of annual budgets.
But the work you do is big and important, said another friend.
And I suppose that’s why I’m sharing it here. Not just because being quoted on the front page of the national press is exciting, but because I know that what we do matters and that the more people who can help us, the better.
But I also know that I have found the last few weeks overwhelming. And how much more overwhelming must the constant reports about the ‘refugee crisis’ be to those who’ve never really thought about forced displacement before.
There are so many competing narratives and so many questions that are hard to answer. Should we even call it a ‘refugee crisis’? Or is it about ‘migrants’? Is one category more ‘deserving’ than the other and is the differentiation helpful? Should additional financial resources to resettle refugees come from the international development budget or should we make further cuts at home? Could signing an online petition really change anything?
Who should take primary responsibility? Should it be the countries closest to the Syrian border? Or those on the periphery of Europe? Won’t rescuing people from sinking ships encourage more to come? And besides, it’s all well and good calling for compassion or open borders or an increased quota of refugees, but what about the fact that so many people here are already finding life hard? Having struggled to find somewhere affordable to live in London, I admit to feeling real icy fear gripping my heart as I read an article by someone in an affluent area of Berkshire exhorting us all to foster unaccompanied minors or share our spare rooms with refugees. I can barely afford a room of my own, let alone a spare one.
Guilt, fear, compassion, generosity, hypocrisy, denial, confusion, self preservation and love. How to untangle the mess of emotions this whole thing engenders. Here I confess to sometimes just turning off the news and pulling the duvet up over my head because it all feels too sad and complicated to face.
Something must be done, we cry (when not hiding under our duvets). But what, and by whom?
“Well, obviously we can’t do nothing,” I said to someone who asked me a similar question after church some weeks ago. I still remember the surprise, anger and sadness that welled up inside me when he shrugged and raised his eyes because actually he saw no problem in doing just that. I was staggered that he also saw absolutely no irony in his subsequent comments in which he, as a South African migrant who’d made a career move to the UK for the sake of a change of scene and higher salary, dissed the rights of the less affluent to have access to safety, let alone to to a ‘better life’.
He and I didn’t really hit it off so sadly, in this instance, I don’t have any way of contacting him. I’d love to send him Giles Fraser’s piece about a clear biblical mandate to ‘let the refugees in, every last one’. Or, if that was a bit too lefty for his taste, this statement from the Evangelical Alliance, in which RSN’s work is also cited, that ‘this is not a time for the Church to be silent’.
Amen. That conversation had made me sad and angry because surely churches should be full of people who get this.
People who see the inherent value of others created in the image of God.
People who have experienced grace and generosity in lostness and poverty.
People who are called to love our neighbour, whoever that neighbour happens to be, to willingly enter places of suffering, and to not despise those who are shunned by the powers that be.
People who can generously spend themselves on behalf of others, through confidence in a God who replenishes our resources, meets our needs, and tells us not to be afraid. A God from whom everything comes in the first place.
People who follow the one who practiced what he preached and who himself had been a refugee with his parents when they fled a despotic and murderous tyrant. As his fearful parents escaped their home country and sought asylum elsewhere, he would have been about the same age as little Aylan Kurdi, the image of whose lifeless body washed up on the sand still haunts me when I close my eyes.
I don’t have an easy answer, a definitive policy or a perfect way of translating theology into practice, but I a firm believer in the fact that even if you can’t do everything you can do something. It’s that well-known starfish story again. You know the one, when a child is walking along the beach throwing washed-up starfish back into the sea. Someone points out the thousands on the beach, the limitations of the assistance he can offer, and the fact that his efforts really won’t make a difference. It will to this one he said, giving one more starfish the chance to live in the water rather than dying on the shore.
That child understood that something had to be done, and then he got on with it.
At RSN we have been encouraged that so many people responded to the mention of our work in The Times by asking us what part they could play in doing something. We’ve signposted people to organisations which could help them offer housing to a person who needs it. We’ve suggested that they mentor a young person who has come to the UK alone and needs help to make progress in their education. And, if hosting and mentoring aren’t good options, we’ve suggested that they make a donation to our work, do some fundraising on our behalf, or share stories from our blog on Twitter and Facebook.
Telling personal stories, speaking truth where confusion and lies abound, and thinking about the words we use, can make a real difference, even when the scale of this humanitarian crisis seems beyond us. If you’ve got time to read just one article, read Why not call them people? and heed its call to be humane as well as accurate. Because actually we are all in it together, in this world I mean. A world where a growing number of people – through no fault of their own – are being displaced from some of the most precarious parts of the world.
I have the privilege of knowing some young people who have experienced this terrifying and life-changing displacement at a very young age. I think of Hamid from Afghanistan, Rahel from Eritrea, Hussein from Syria, and this 17 year old girl from North Korea. Their perseverance, uniqueness, achievements and mere humanity, convince me that each of them has a hopeful future that is worth investing in and preparing for. That’s why RSN exists.
When I see their faces and think of unknown others fleeing conflict in Syria and many other countries around the world, I too know that something must be done. And that something starts with us.
Cartoon: ‘Drowning’ by First Dog on the Moon