In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem about the Statue of Liberty called “The New Colossus.” Today the words of that sonnet appear on the pedestal of the monument. The Statue of Liberty stands to welcome the world with this silent cry,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Today the United States remains a beacon of hope and opportunity for many people around the world and serves as a frontrunner for refugee resettlement. Thousands of individuals stand at our borders, asking for an opportunity to come in. Millions more await rescue from a life in limbo, having fled their nations for reasons of safety.
A refugee is defined as “a person who has been forced to leave their home in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” Seeking sanctuary is not a matter of economic gain but of simple survival. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently 68.5 million refugees in the world. The majority of them are taking refuge in developing countries, where access to medical care, education and employment is limited.
I have lived and served in the Middle East for over 13 years, ministering to refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. A handful of these millions have become some of my dearest friends.
I met Hasan and Sireen and their four children in 2014. They were newly arrived refugees from Syria. This family fled the civil war in their homeland and made the perilous journey to a neighboring country.
Their community had been destroyed by bombs. Schools were closed. Businesses had failed. Hospitals were overcrowded and running out of medicine. Friends and family had been killed or had died from the lack of medical care. Warring factions had infiltrated most of their city, making daily life potentially deadly.
After the dangerous journey to their new host country, they tried to start a new life, learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. They lived as foreigners in a strange land and were at the mercy of its people. A few of their neighbors reached out to them in kindness. Many ignored them completely, took advantage of them and wished them to be gone.
In the ensuing months, hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of Syrians would make the same decision. Abandoning their crumbling nation to the forces of war, they looked to nations around them for refuge.
As refugees, they had no homes, no jobs, and no schools for their children. Most of all, they had no rights to expect such things from the government. They could merely survive.
Listening to their stories was like standing on the brink of hell. They told of murder, corruption, betrayal, death, fear, and danger. Adults and children alike saw and experienced atrocities we can hardly imagine.
And while the healthy were able to flee, the sick and the elderly were left behind to endure the war. Many children today are being raised by parents with post-traumatic stress disorder, barely able to care for the physical needs of their families and completely unable to care for their emotional needs.
And yet there are some who seek to live each day with purpose and find ways to succeed. I was humbled by the generosity of refugees who barely had enough food for themselves but gladly hosted me and my family for meals and tea. I was inspired by children who helped their parents care for siblings and took advantage of every opportunity to learn—even if they couldn’t go to school.
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
All of us are created in the image of God, designed to know Him and have a relationship with Him. All of us are fallen, sinful human beings, in need of a Savior. All of us are created with a longing for something more than this world offers us—something safe, unbroken, loving, peaceful. For the most part, all of us desire to care for our families, work jobs that are fulfilling, see our children succeed and live in harmony within community.
When I partnered with a local organization in the Middle East to work with Syrian children, I had the joy of showing them God’s love. I was reminded every day that our Lord wants them to know Him. I taught them worship songs and saw them come to life as they worshipped their Creator.
We are Christ’s body here on Earth, and we are called to share the gospel of repentance and forgiveness. We must ask ourselves, “What do refugees have to do with us?”
When the lawyer in Luke 10 put Jesus to the test regarding what it would take to make it to heaven, Jesus put the question right back in his court. The lawyer gave the right answer—“Love God with everything you are and everything you have and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself”—but Jesus challenged the lawyer to do exactly that.
Luke tells us that the lawyer sought to justify himself asking, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, ESV).
Jesus then told the story of the Good Samaritan. A man falls prey to robbers and is left near death by his attackers. A priest and a Levite, God’s chosen people to minister to the nation of Israel, saw the man—half dead—and walked away from him.
Then along comes a Samaritan who sees the man, has compassion and does everything he can to care for his needs. This true neighbor, the Samaritan with whom Jews wanted nothing to do, illustrates the mercy of God.
Jesus calls us to show mercy. It was Jesus’ command to the lawyer who knew in his head what God commanded, but whose heart hadn’t opened to the fullness of God’s perfect love for the whole world. It is also Jesus’ command to us.
To the Syrian and Afghani refugees fleeing civil war, we must show mercy. To the Central American refugee fleeing gang violence, we must show mercy. To the Sudanese refugee fleeing violence and war, we must show mercy.
When we see the hurting and the wounded, what should fill our hearts? Compassion. What should mark our actions? Mercy. If we harden our hearts, and convince ourselves that refugees aren’t our problem, we miss out on the incredible privilege of showing God’s mercy to precious human beings created in His image.
What the world sees as a global refugee crisis is one of the church’s greatest opportunities to share the gospel with people groups that were once difficult to reach. People from Syria and Afghanistan may be more open to the gospel than ever before. Many of them are looking to make homes in nations where there is freedom to follow Christ.
The Lord can use the atrocities of war to birth churches among these people groups. Perhaps in generations to come, they will return and rebuild their countries upon the truth of the gospel.
When refugees come to us, let’s not walk to the other side of the road and act as if caring for them isn’t our problem. Let us look upon these broken communities with compassion. Let’s do everything in our power to care for their needs.
This was originally published in the Encourage magazine.