Refugees

What the Refugee Church Can Teach the West

Image via /Shutterstock

When one of the U.K.’s most beloved religious programs took the opportunity to profile a group of Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians and document the church they built within the “jungle” of Calais, you can imagine the resulting shock.

Some sources, such as the U.K.’s Daily Expresslabeled the profile a propaganda piece, called for punitive measures against the BBC, and claimed the BBC was a politically biased institution out of touch with the concerns of the common tax payer.

But what the story revealed was this: that at the borders of one of the largest and most influential national churches in the world, this flimsy construction of tarps and plywood reflected the endurance of faith, the tenacity of hope, and the beauty of grace with more elegance and majesty than Europe’s empty cathedrals.

Time for Us to Do Something 'Fantastic' for Refugees

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Three weeks ago, on Aug. 7, the American public had ample summer entertainment choices for killing time. There was the release of the latest Marvel film, Fantastic Four, which despite its fantastic failure with critics still had a $26.2 million opening. There was also the first GOP presidential primary “debate,” which guest starred The Donald and drew 24 million viewers, making it the highest-rated primary debate in television history.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, radicals weren’t killing time at all, but making further advances. That same day, ISIS attacked Qariyatain, a strategically located town in the Syrian province of Homs. The attack is said to have resulted in at least 230 kidnappings.

August 7 was already a day of infamy in the Christian history of the region. It was already known as “The Day of the Martyrs” within the Assyrian Christian community. On that day in 1933, as many as 3,000 Assyrian Christians were massacred in Simele (northern Iraq). It's also the day ISIS captured Qaraqosh — the “Christian capital” of Iraq — forcing Christians to flee the Nineveh Plain to Kurdistan, eliminating 1,900 years of Christian presence in Nineveh.

Many American Christians say they are hungry for leadership, but what are we actually doing beyond indulging in fictional stories of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and The Thing battling evil, or the barely less fictional “leadership” on display in contemporary politics? 

The Middle East’s Mental Health Crisis

Brain Illustration

Brain illustration, Maxim Gaigul / Shutterstock.com

National Minority Mental Health Awareness month is upon us in the U.S., and never has the scope and impact of mental health issues threatened to affect the long-term security of our country and world than now.

This year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 10.8 million people are affected by the conflict in Syria, with 4 million refugees having fled the country. This is the largest refugee population coming out of any one conflict in over a generation. Similarly, in early 2015, UNHCR estimated that the total population of concern, due to the conflict in Iraq, exceeded 3 million people. Millions of people have experienced the unimaginable trauma of political and religious conflict and persecution in the Middle East, especially women, whom the Iraqi Ministry of Health determined were disproportionately affected by mental health illness due to the recent conflict. The scale and depth of the trauma demands a multi-faith, multi-sector, multi-discipline response, before it is too late.

Faith in Action in the Rio Grande Valley

The families arrive at the center after having traveled for weeks. Their bodies are completely filthy dirty. Their clothing and shoes have a darkened, grey, muddy appearance. In some cases, their clothing is still wet from having crossed the Rio Grande River. Since June of last year, large groups of refugees, mostly mothers with a child or two, walk through the door of the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, their faces full of joyful tears as they experience the warm and welcoming faces of the many volunteers applauding, shouting out, “Bienvenidos!” “Welcome!”

The refugee families just spent several days at the Border Patrol Processing Station – the “Hielera” – the “Ice Box” as the refugees call it, because it is freezing there. While in this processing facility, the refugees are kept in cells, where they wait fearfully for what is to become of them.

5 Reasons Why Christians Should Stay in the Middle East

REUTERS / Omar Sanadiki / RNS

An Assyrian woman attends a Mass on March 1, 2015, inside Ibrahim al-Khalil church in Jaramana, eastern Damascus, in solidarity with the Assyrians abducted by Islamic State fighters in Syria. Photo via REUTERS / Omar Sanadiki / RNS

It would be nice to consider emigration as a realistic option. But it is not. I would suggest pundits spend that same time and money fighting for a clear and concrete objective, declaring and defending a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain for Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis.

Yes, there are some high-risk situations that demand emigration. But, in general, Western Christians should think hard about how not to be an accomplice to ISIS.

What Would Oscar Romero Say Today About El Salvador?

Photo via Wikimedia / Public Domain

Photo via Wikimedia / Public Domain

Central America needs help expanding education opportunities, building child welfare systems, and sheltering victims of violence and witnesses to crime. But none of these reforms can be sustained unless Central American governments also work to eradicate corruption and reform their judicial systems.

As Romero said during a time of similar urgency, “On this point there is no possible neutrality. We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death. … We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.”

Italians Help Flood of Refugees in Pope Francis' Vision of a 'Church for the Poor'

Photo via Rosie Scammell / RNS

Migrants sit at the Caritas center in Catania, Sicily. Photo via Rosie Scammell / RNS

Sitting outside the central train station here in eastern Sicily, a 16-year-old who would only give his name as “Simon” hunched his knees up to his chest and wrapped himself up into a ball. With little spoken English, the teenager from Eritrea has taken to miming the way he traveled across the Mediterranean.

He was one of around 325 migrants crammed into an overcrowded boat that left Libya earlier this month, only to lose power a few hours into the journey.

Yearning to Breathe Free

“I DON’T BLAME the Border Patrol. I blame our country,” Sister Norma Pimentel told Rep. Jim McGovern on a hot afternoon in McAllen, Texas, last August.

“It’s like a burning building,” explained Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, “and we’re sending them back into it.”

Pimentel was describing the U.S. policy of deporting Central American refugees back to their home countries, while Rep. McGovern (D-Mass.) nodded in agreement. He had just visited the Border Patrol central processing facility, and Pimentel was leading him on a tour of the humanitarian respite center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

The difference was striking: At the processing facility, children were detained in what McGovern described as “cages”; at the respite center, Catholic Charities staff and volunteers provided food, showers, clothing, medical exams, and an air-conditioned place for refugees to wait for a bus ride to meet family members living in the U.S.

Because of large influx of refugees last summer, initially those who could verify that they had relatives already living in the U.S. were processed by Border Patrol and released with papers allowing them to travel by bus to reunite with family, where they would await an immigration hearing—and possible deportation. But after being dropped off at the McAllen bus station by the Border Patrol, many waited for hours for their bus to arrive—often with nothing but the clothes on their back and papers in hand.

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'I Wish I Could Also Have Died:' Boko Haram Haunts Kids

Tom Gowon, 9, in a brown jacket, with his fellow refugees at Baga Sola camp, Cha

Tom Gowon, 9, in a brown jacket, with his fellow refugees at Baga Sola camp, Chad. Image via Tonny Onyulo/RNS.

Memories of Boko Haram’s murderous spree in his Nigerian hometown haunt Tom Gowon, 9, as he sits on a patch of grass at a refugee camp, sipping steaming porridge from a plastic mug.

“I was lucky because I was not killed,” said Gowon, recalling the assault on Baga, Nigeria, in early January.

“But they shot and killed my father. My mother was kidnapped by the militants.”

Children such as Gowon bear the brunt of Boko Haram’s rampage since its fighters kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last year and conquered enough territory to declare a caliphate that covers one-fifth of Nigeria.

Where the militants have met resistance, they’ve torched villages and left piles of corpses in their wake.

“There are several camps around here housing many children who have lost their parents in attacks,” said Guy Nanhousngue, a Chadian relief worker who said children make up about half of the Nigerians coming to the Baga Sola refugee camp on the shores of Lake Chad, which separates the two countries.

“We’re registering more than 50 children every day.”

'God Always Provides'

REV. KHALIL JAAR is a warm, passionate, and energetic man—and he needs to be. As the spiritual leader and “go to” guy for the 150 Iraqi Christian refugees living in his church in Amman, Jordan, he needs all the energy he can get.

When I met with Father Jaar at St. Mary, Mother of the Church congregation in Amman, it quickly became obvious how much he loves the refugees who now call this church home. Jaar, himself a refugee, knows something about the trials and tribulations of being forced to leave your home. He is the son of Palestinian refugees of Honduran descent. (His birth name is Carlos and he took the name Khalil when he became a Catholic priest.) He also knows something about the terror of war. Shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he was abducted in Baghdad where he was serving, and “only by the grace of God was I freed,” he says.

Jaar is especially dedicated to the education of the Iraqi children forced to leave everything they knew, including their schools. In his overcrowded office, full of stacks of papers and files, Jaar pulls out a large binder. This is his personal reference book, with a page for each child in his care. It includes a photo, a short history of their family and background, their education to date, and also notes about their extracurricular activities and likes, such as soccer and music. It is important to know as much  as possible about each child, he says, and make sure that they continue their education.

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