Originally, I wrote this article at the end of 2018 on the fourth day of Christmas, but I publish it at the close of the Day of Epiphany, a day when we think about a star, some Magi, and the flight to Egypt–the rest of the Christmas story. Peace. CAR
Today is a dreary fourth day of Christmas and I am spending it at Mount St. Benedict’s Monastery in Erie, PA. It is a perfect day and place for me to reflect back over this year, which may very well have been the most significant year of my life. In this year I have thought deeply about an issue that has been near and dear to my heart for over thirty years. In this year I have taken time off to explore how my own ancestry—my own story– is affected by this issue. In this year I have spent time getting to know people whose lives and futures are affected by this issue. In this year I have spent time thinking about and witnessing how we who follow Christ must do what we can to bring about justice and life for the people who are affected by this issue.
What is the issue? The issue is the worldwide crisis of refugees and immigration. It is a controversial issue. It is an issue that we wish would go away. It is an issue that brings divisiveness even to those who follow Christ. In so many places the scriptures are so clear about welcoming the stranger and helping those who are forced to flee from their homes yet there is fear and judgement that clouds this issue. There is political controversy that keep us from hearing the Gospel word from Jesus. Often, when the most important response is to surround people in acts of hospitality and words of encouragement and comfort, our feet are stuck, and our voices are silent, and we let people with other agendas make decisions.
And in the end, displaced people in this world are left alone in fear and brutal conditions.
Over the last year I have been asked a question over and over again: Why is this issue so important to you? Throughout this last year I have had the time to think about that question and I know for certain when my interest in this issue emerged.
On a cloudy morning in 1986, in Pakistan, I took a photo of a woman from Afghanistan who was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. I admit that at the moment that my fellow seminary students and I entered that camp, I knew very little about how the then Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan at Christmas of 1979 and how political upheavals and fear and conditions led to mass exodus of Afghanistan people out of the country. I knew very little about how many refugees this occupation had produced, nor did I know that the United Nations had considered it the largest refugee crisis in the world. On that cloudy morning in 1986, in a Pakistan refugee camp, filled with Afghanistan people and surrounded with men with automatic rifles, I knew that I had just met a woman whose story would change the way I thought about life and ministry.
I do not think I ever knew her name, but from the moment our group set foot in camp, this woman was determined to tell us about the conditions of her life. She had escaped from her country on foot, walking hundreds of miles of brutal terrain in brutal conditions. She was one of the estimated 3.3 million refugees that left Afghanistan for Pakistan and Iran.
As I listened to her talk, through her interpreter, I noticed the lines on her face and her stark white hair and I wondered two things. How old was she? What are the horrors that she is not telling us, the horrors that would be so bad that living in the conditions of the refugee camp would be better than staying in Afghanistan? Later we discovered that she had just turned fifty, but she looked so much older than that. She had been living in that camp for nearly five years. She did not know what had happened to most of her family members. Her life was difficult and brutal. She was never really safe. She never had enough food. She was at the mercy of those in charge of the camp. And she complained about how she was always cold in that January dreariness.
In the twenty minutes that I stood in that camp listening to this woman, the image of her face sank into my soul and I have carried it around with me since that day. I have never forgotten the pain in her eyes, the weariness of her face, and the sighs in her voice. I have never forgotten that she had children my age, but she had no idea where they were and had no idea if they knew where she was. I have never forgotten how cold she was. I have never forgotten that this daughter of God had endured conditions in her life that are unthinkable to me. I have never forgotten that at that moment, I felt God was asking me to do something about the refugee crisis that continues to this day, extends worldwide, and causes such pain and turmoil in the people who make the decision to become refugees, never knowing if they are making a decision that will bring them life or bring them death. I have never forgotten.
Most of all, I have never forgotten that in the moment I took the photo, the expression on her face asked me: Will you make sure our stories are told?
For a while after that encounter I did what I could to tell the stories of the people in that refugee camp. After a while, my life moved on, down other avenues.
Then, about four years ago, at the same time that millions of refugees were pouring into Europe, I made a discovery about my own ancestors. Three of my ancestral families left Germany and France as refugees. A series of events, political, agricultural, and religious led up to the moment that these families had to ask themselves if leaving everything and everybody they knew would give their families a better chance at survival. A brutally cold winter—still recorded as the coldest in 500 years—and starvation led my families to make the decisions to become refugees. Leaving their homes took every ounce of strength and every resource that they had.
In learning about my family history, the word refugee took on a whole different meaning for me. Suddenly, the word refugee was a word that described those whose blood flowed through my veins, whose DNA was part of my DNA, whose faith and values, likely, were passed down to me. My people were refugees and I know, that in my face can be seen the faces of my refugee ancestors—the same blue eyes, the same round face.
These days there are faces of other refugees that I see when I close my eyes. These are the faces of people that I met while traveling in Germany this year. Mahdoush is a beautiful woman who speaks flawless English, yet struggles with learning German, the language of her new home. Zahra is an Iranian refugee who left her home, rejected by her family because she had committed a crime—she had converted to Christianity and she was wanted by the authorities. Fluent in Farsi, English, and French, she has passed all levels of German proficiency, yet she cannot enter University until she completes two years of high school. She is 28 years old and has had a year of University in her home country. There is Abas, a bright young man from Iran, who narrowly escaped arrest because he was caught on tape telling people about Jesus. He has passed all levels of German language classes and has started a training course to be a bus driver. He feels safe in Germany but misses his mother and his nieces so much. He is aware that he may never see them again.
And then, there is a woman, whose name I never knew, but who invited me into her home, in a refugee camp, for a meal and to tell me her story. Her face has the lines of worry and fatigue. She has been a refugee all of her life because she is a second-generation Afghanistan refugee. She was born in Iran to Afghanistan refugee parents, grew up and married another second-generation Afghanistan refugee and when conditions became unbearable for her family she came to Germany, but the trauma of her life—the passing of her husband as he fled Iran, the passing of her daughter from an incurable kidney disease—makes it difficult for her to learn the German language and move through the system. She will be deported in the next few months and her life has no hope. Her face is the most vivid of all to me.
When I was a child, it seemed that every year in the stack of Christmas cards that would arrive in our mail, there was always one that showed Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus on a camel or on a donkey or on foot, fleeing in the dark of night. The card had a title: The Flight to Egypt. It was a long time before I ever knew what the Flight to Egypt was or why it was something that was thought about at Christmas.
The Flight of Egypt refers to Matthew 2:13-18. The kings that had visited the Christ child were warned to return to their homes without checking in with King Herod as they had been instructed to do. Joseph was instructed in a dream to wake Mary and Jesus and flee in the night to Egypt. Their lives were in danger. King Herod wanted to kill Jesus. In fleeing to Egypt, the young Holy family became refugees.
A standard definition for the word refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. For Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, the violence that King Herod intended and carried out in order to kill the child—Emmanuel–was certainly a reason to become refugees. For my ancestors political and religious turmoil and a natural disaster caused them to be refugees. For my friends Mahdoush, Zahra, Abas, and the unnamed Afghanistan woman, fear of persecution and arrest and violence led them to become refugees.
The word Refugee is not just a word to me—a word that describes a condition that I cannot imagine. It is a word that carries with it faces of people who have become a part of my heart. They are the faces of my ancestors—the Goldman’s, the Staring’s, the Klein’s. They are the faces of my friends—Mahdoush, Zahra, and Abas. They are the faces of people whose names I will never know, but who wanted me to know their stories.
Most of all the faces of Refugees are the faces of Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)
Afghanistan refugees in a refugee camp in Pakistan, January 1986. Photo by: CAR, January 1986