Monthly Archives: September 2016

“Seeking Refuge,” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir

This is a book that World Relief (a Christian relief organization) has put together to help Christians understand more about the current refugee crisis, and what parts we as individuals and as a nation can play in this situation.

The book begins with a brief overview of the statistics of the crisis (more than 60 million people displaced worldwide, about 20 million of them fleeing their home countries — half of whom are children). It’s hard to wrap our minds around numbers like these, which is all the more reason to read a book about it!

There are three primary authors of this book: Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, Matthew Soerens, a World Relief worker, and Dr. Issam Smeir, a professional counselor who was born in Jordan and is the son of a refugee — he currently works with refugees who are healing from trauma. Each author briefly shares their story and describes the circumstances that led them to do the work they are currently doing.

They acknowledge the conflict many Christians feel about trying to balance national security with helping others, but contend that:

“We need not and ought not choose between caring for refugees locally and caring for refugees overseas, because how we respond here directly impacts what happens there. The world is watching how we in the United States respond to the relatively few refugees who reach our shores, and our government’s encouragement to other nations to protect those fleeing persecution lacks credibility if we do not do our part.” (p 17)

The authors implore Christians to think biblically about migration. They note that, while we will be quick to say that the Bible is our primary authority on life topics, immigration is one area where that doesn’t seem to be the case. They say that:

“For many evangelical Christians … refugees and immigration are thought of as political, economic, and cultural issues, rather than as a biblical concern. A recent LifeWay Research survey of American evangelical Christians found that just 12 percent said that they think about immigration issues primarily from the perspective of the Bible. In fact, when asked what most influenced their thinking on this topic, the Bible, the local church, and national Christian leaders combined were reported less often than the media.” (p 29)

They assert that while there are many current cultural issues that the Bible doesn’t speak directly about (taxation rates, gun control), “as we examine the question of how to treat refugees and other immigrants, the Bible actually has a lot to say.” (p 30)

Jesus was a refugee, and the authors look to many other biblical examples of refugees, as well as Jesus’s teachings about loving our neighbors and how we see other people. We are also told the personal stories of several different refugees, whose countries, religions, and backgrounds all vary, but who found themselves on the run and in need of safety. This helps us to put a human face on this crisis, and not just see these people as statistics or scapegoats.

The authors address several common concerns and misconceptions they often hear about refugees — from economic concerns (refugees provide a net gain to our economy — and refugee men are more likely to be employed than US citizen men), to confusing refugees with “illegals,” (refugees are, by definition, in the country legally), questions about religion (I did not realize that Christians make up a much larger percentage of refugees, over the past few years, than any other religion), and fears of terrorism. Ultimately, they make the case that we love and welcome refugees because God loves them (and us), and though there will always be legitimate reasons to fear, we choose not to let that fear overcome our love.

Other chapters detail the refugee resettlement process, and touch on other displaced peoples too — from those who are internally displaced (and not considered refugees), to those who are asylum seekers — this helped me to understand the difference between refugees, asylum seekers, and those who are undocumented. These terms are often thrown around in reference to the wrong people and can become confusing.

The authors then give practical suggestions and opportunities to respond to this crisis. They give stories of how some situations have unfolded in various parts of the US, and advice on how we can serve refugees without hurting. We’re given information about PTSD and the effect that can often have on those who have lived through trauma — at least 39 percent of refugees experience PTSD, compared to just one percent of the general population.

We are also encouraged to consider and respond to the larger issues that compel people to become refugees in the first place:

“What people believe and value matter because they drive their behaviors, whether good or bad. As we think about how we can most effectively bring positive change to any culture, including our own, we must understand the relationship between behaviors, values, and beliefs. Change that yields results without a corresponding change in values and beliefs will be superficial and often temporary.” (p 156)

“The global refugee crisis is indeed global. It isn’t a question of whether we should respond here (in the West) or there (at the crisis’ points of origin), nor if we should address immediate needs or root causes. We can and must do all of the above.” (p 164)

The authors then discuss how we can interact with the politics and policies of our government to help justice be done, and how we can practically advocate for refugees and others who are vulnerable.

There were many stories told in this book, both sad ones and encouraging ones, but one of the ones I found most convicting was the overview of the events surrounding the SS St. Louis, which was a ship of German Jewish asylum seekers that was turned away from the US in 1939. Over 200 people aboard were later killed in the Holocaust.

“That same year, a bipartisan bill in Congress to allow twenty thousand Jewish refugee children from Germany was introduced … [the] wife of the US Commissioner of Immigration fretted that ’20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults,’ reflecting the sentiment of many Americans at the time. Her cousin, President Roosevelt, did not support the bill, which ultimately was defeated. In 1941, the Roosevelt administration tightened restrictions on Jewish refugees, worried that some could be — or could become — Nazi spies.” (p 167)

They summarize with “These stories are an important illustration of why refugee policy matters: the decisions of elected officials directly impact people made by God, whose lives we believe are precious.” (p 168)

This has been and still is a big (and sometimes subconscious) challenge to me, to come to terms with the fact that because everyone is valuable to God, my behavior toward them should reflect that. Being from America or looking like me does not change any of these facts.

It can be hard to process when the problems of the world seem so large and the statistics are so overwhelming. There is fear generated everywhere, and in my mind the only way to overcome that is to realize that there is someone more powerful than that fear. To truly believe that perfect love casts out fear.

The question on the back of this book, “What will rule our hearts: Fear or compassion?” has been a challenge to me as I try to honestly answer this question for myself, and may get a different answer at any given moment! I know that, if left to my own gut reactions, I’m just as likely as anyone else to have an inherent fear of those who are different or foreign to me, and that’s why I need to continually remind myself of things like this.

This book is short and covers a lot of topics that it is only able to cover briefly — much more could be said in more detail about peacemaking, Islam and ISIS, loving our neighbors, US public policy, and refugees themselves. But I found it a good start, and a useful, timely challenge.

I’ll end with one more quote from the end of the book:

“Our ultimate hope for this book is that the church would shine its light through the refugee crisis. As we access the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, we pray God’s people would rise up as never before to welcome strangers, each doing what God has called all of us to do:
To bind up the brokenhearted.
To love our neighbors.
To do justice.
To love mercy.
To pray without ceasing.
To practice hospitality, and to learn to receive hospitality of others.
Maybe just to take a plate of cookies across the street, trusting that a smile can overcome a language barrier.” (p 184)