Welcoming the Stranger – Part 2
I recently read an article that has struck me profoundly about the welcome we offer to strangers. It is entitled “Where is home – It’s a Haunting Question for Both Refugees and Christians.” The author, an American Jesuit, describes a makeshift camp for refugees in St-Denis, just north of Paris.
He is there to help the refugees. A local resident approaches him and his French Jesuit colleague and harangues them. The local resident disparages the refugees (they piss and shit everywhere, they might be terrorists, they rape children, etc.)
The French Jesuit responds by saying that refugees have abandoned everything because of persecution, that they are desperate and in great need, that it is our duty to help them out, etc.
The answer that came back from the local resident got seared in the American Jesuit’s mind: “That is not my problem”.
The American Jesuit is struck by this answer and reflects on it. He realizes how often he himself has walked in the makeshift refugee camp, seeing all of that misery, and saying to himself “This is horrible, but how is it my problem? What can I do about it anyway?”
As he further deepens his reflection, he realizes that the whole issue of “welcoming or not welcoming the stranger” is, at an instinctual level, a question of fear. The fear is not so much what is foreign about the stranger; the fear is more about how the stranger, the migrant, reminds us of our own fragility – that we too have a tenuous hold on a home.
Even here in Canada, how many are one paycheck away from the streets; how many are forced out of their homes because of Spring flooding or forest fires that are becoming all too common? Indeed, the refugee may remind us all too well how our own lives could be dramatically changed in an instant.
And so, how do we go from “That is not my problem” to “That is my problem”?
I was reading an article about children in Haiti who are exploited to work as domestics. Human rights organizations estimate there are approximately 300 000 of them, 75% of whom are girls. Many of these children start working at the age of 5. 5 years old!
I immediately thought of my daughter who just turned 6 years old and cried interiorly imagining her being forced to work essentially as a slave. And so again, how do we go from “That is not my problem” to “That is my problem”?
We must make it personal. We must try to live in the skin of the other so that we feel what he feels. That’s what was happening to me when I was imagining my daughter in the place of one of those Haitian children. And isn’t that what Jesus is saying when He says: “When you do something to the least of these, you do to me”?
Besides actually becoming a refugee ourselves, besides just imagining being in the shoes of a refugee, what can we do?
I believe, we must befriend the stranger, the refugee.
When we talk about “welcoming the stranger” as somebody from a faith-based organization, what do we mean? Is there anything different from any other organization? Let’s look at that:
- We help them learn the language
- We help them find housing
- We help them with health care
This first step is what I call fulfilling the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And I think most of us, whether we are from a faith-based organization or not, do this well.
Although this step is important, (we all need to have our physiological and security needs met), it is but the frame of reference, the background, for something more important, I believe.
It is through these ordinary, day-to-day encounters of accompanying the refugee to his doctor’s appointment, showing him how to save money on groceries, etc., that you start to build a relationship with her. You start to get to know him; and she eventually becomes a friend.
These encounters are what I call the “God Encounters”. In these encounters, there is a possibility of transformation if you allow it.
When I was a full-time volunteer at Romero House (a welcome home for asylum seekers in Toronto), I helped them with their basic needs. Through these actions, I was getting to know them just by talking with them. In effect, I was creating those “God Encounters” without really realizing it.
I was dealing with a lot of French-speaking African asylum seekers. They eventually started to call me “le grand brûlé” – The Great Burnt One. I didn’t understand why they were calling me that so they explained to me that in their culture “le grand brûlé” refers to a black person who, when his skin is burned, turns white.
So, I was actually a black person, like them, whose skin had been burned. I understood that they considered me a part of them. Therefore, it is in these “God Encounters” that the integration works both ways. The other transforms you as you transform him.
All that to say that one of the key elements in the mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service is accompaniment. Welcoming the other is a commitment to accompanying the other. And the etymology of accompany is “to break bread with.”
This may seem extraordinarily simple but it is very profound at the same time. Think of this question: When was the last time you spent time with one of the “least of your brothers or sisters” (a refugee, a homeless person, a prisoner, someone who is handicapped or elderly) other than to perform a service?