BOKO HARAM KILLS 90 CIVILIANS AND WOUNDS 500 IN CAMAROON ATTACKS
US DECLARES ISLAMIC STATE IS COMMITTING GENOCIDE AGAINST CHRISTIANS AND OTHER MINORITIES, IN IRAQ AND SYRIA
THOUSANDS RISK LIVES CROSSING BORDERS TO FLEE CIVIL WAR
Prior to moving abroad five years ago, the news headlines about humanitarian devastation in overseas countries seemed so distant, so unreal. This year, those news stories and statistics became utterly tangible.
Some of you may know, I’ve been teaching English as a second language for four years. In that short time I’ve gotten a wide variety of experience. I’ve taught in a private school, public school, language school, kindergarten and high school. I’ve taught private lessons to elementary and middle school students, university students, university professors, soldiers, housewives and medical doctors. I’ve met some incredible people.
I’m currently teaching at an association that partners with the U.S. and Turkish embassies. The embassies recently granted a number of local refugees scholarships to attend English courses at our association. I was asked to teach one of the courses.
It might be helpful to define the word, refugee. The UN Refugee Agency states, “Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, strives to find the best long-term solution for every refugee. There are three possible solutions.
- Repatriation – the refugee returns to their country of origin
- Local Integration – refugees are integrated into the country and community they are currently residing (in this case, Turkey)
- Resettlement – placement in a third country made possible by the UNHCR
My students are in the (long) process of being resettled into an English speaking country. I have the privilege of helping them learn English so they can find good jobs, be deemed valuable and respected by prospective employers, welcomed by their neighbors, strengthened and encouraged to start life again in a new country. I am honored.
My teaching style is known to be relaxed (unless I’m teaching a room full of 25 Turkish high school boys). I like to create an environment where students can feel comfortable, motivated to learn, able to make mistakes and feel free to ask seemingly silly questions. The first class or lesson starts same way. We begin with an icebreaker, followed by introductions and a little background about themselves.
The first lesson with my refugee students started no differently. Seated in front of me were four women from Iraq, one young man from Iran and another young man from Cameroon. The women from Iraq had been previously acquainted and came in the class bouncing with energy and eagerness to learn. ‘Amira’ (name changed for her privacy) went first. She proudly said, “My name Amira from Iraq.. three children.. came Turkey three years ago.. teacher I was..” In her broken English I understood she was from Iraq, the mother to three children, first seeking refuge in Turkey three years ago and a former teacher. Her introduction was short and sweet but I needed her to elaborate so I could diagnose her grammar level and confirm to my employer that she was indeed in the right class (as I’m required to do with all first time students).
Cait: “Thank you (for sharing that), Amira. Why did you come to Turkey?” I asked.
Amira: “Iraq dangerous me and family.”
Cait: “Why was Iraq dangerous for you?”
Amira: “We Christians.”
Cait: “Iraq was dangerous because you are Christians?”
Cait: “What was happening that made it dangerous for you?”
Amira: “They try to kill us.”
My stomach twisted, my eyes bulged, my heart sunk, my gaze focused and my mind raced. I desperately tried to hold my composure knowing it was important to keep the flow of my class going. But it was in that vulnerable moment Amira shared her life with me that a news headline became a heart issue for me. It was real. SHE was real. She was my student sitting in my classroom looking in my eyes.
I thanked Amira again for sharing a glimpse into the precious background to her life and asked the next student to introduce himself. Class continued with others sharing stories of life, death, persecution, war, risk, escape and violence that I had never heard before. I felt so naïve, so sheltered, so American.
I am ashamed to confess that before coming abroad I didn’t feel deeply for these people. I never sat with my stomach in knots about the hurdles and heartaches of a refugee. Of course I read the news and had knowledge of these situations but I didn’t carry any real weight over Christians being persecuted for what they believe, mothers carrying infants across country borders, fathers witnessing their homes being destroyed or children watching a sibling die.
Did I just push this information aside because it seemed so distant and unreal? Was my heart too hard to pause and truly feel? Was I too self absorbed to look outside my own life, own family and own country?
In September of 2015, a graphic photo of a Syrian toddler who drowned at sea went viral. It’s like we finally decided to acknowledge this crisis existed. In western countries our hearts were softened, conversations were started and humanitarian help was given to the refugee crisis. But now, recent terror attacks in Europe have evoked fear and shriveled our compassion. America wants to build walls and Europe now stiff-arms, rejecting millions of asylum seekers. I understand that these terror attacks cause us to feel apprehensive about allowing refugees into our country but the legal refugee process is extensive.
1“The United States has resettled over 3 million refugees since the late 1970’s. None have been terrorists. The FBI, State Department, national intelligence agencies, and Department of Homeland Security are all involved in a process that takes 18 months and often much longer [[some of my students going on 3 years]], with significant clearance hurdles. Refugees are not the threat that some try to make them out to be: in fact, they are subjected to more thorough screening than any other category of immigrant or visitor who comes to the U.S.”
I don’t have a political solution. I don’t have any solution for that matter but I know that I am called to love these people as I do my family and myself.
- “Love your neighbor as yourself” Matthew 22:39
- “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18-19.
Behind the dramatic headlines and moving images of these refugees are personal stories of real people with real tragedy and real courage. I long for the eyes of my heart to be open to see the hurt in the world and that fear wouldn’t capture my sympathy. I pray God would give me wisdom on how to love, defend and provide for these people and the courage to do so.