The global refugee crisis became personal for millions around the world last week when they saw the horrific image of a toddler — Aylan Kurdi — washed lifeless onto the shore of the Mediterranean.
The Syrian conflict that he and his family fled has been raging for more than four years, and the numbers are astonishing: 7.6 million men, women and children displaced within Syria, literally running for their lives in an active war zone; 4 million more seeking refuge outside Syria; hundreds of thousands killed.
We are currently facing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Sometimes, though, it takes a single image — or a single encounter — to help us make sense of these horrifying numbers.
I had such an encounter 18 months ago as I sat on a damp concrete floor in an abandoned apartment building in Amman, Jordan, with a group of Syrian mothers. Many were snuggling infants or chasing toddlers.
The refugees had fled Syria’s violence, crossing into Jordan in the middle of the night, often with shells exploding behind them. While some hoped their husbands would eventually join them, many were already widowed.
Haunted by the deaths they’d witnessed in Syria, they refused to let their children out of their sight. So a dilapidated, unfurnished room was kitchen, bedroom, neighborhood gathering place and playground — all in one.
Fortunately, a local church provided these women and children with food, hygiene products, mattresses, clothing and emergency medical care; the women were exceedingly grateful.
While some refugees end up in United Nations refugee camps, most end up like those I visited, struggling to survive in abandoned buildings or unfinished construction. In Jordan and Lebanon, I discovered international non-governmental organizations, like World Relief and World Vision, as well as local organizations and churches, which were providing food, shelter and medical care, building “child friendly spaces” where children could play in safety and attend alternative schools and offering trauma counseling and income generation projects for women.
But all these organizations were overwhelmed by the staggering numbers of refugees and an appalling lack of funds. My church near Chicago responded generously to the organizations I had identified, but our contributions were a tiny drop in the massive sea of need.
Then came little Aylan, forced with his family across seas at the mercy of human smugglers. The world has awakened too late for Aylan and others who have already perished — an estimated 2,000 drowned in the Mediterranean in the first eight months of 2015 alone. But it’s not too late for the millions still desperately seeking safety—boarding unsafe boats, trudging through deserts, following train tracks on foot through unwelcoming countries.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine yourself a father with a hungry and exhausted child perched on your shoulders, while your two older children struggle to keep up on foot. Imagine yourself a mother stopping under a tree to nurse a newborn or comfort a feverish toddler. Would you choose this path if you had any other choice?
Thousands of fathers and mothers like these are standing on the borders of Europe for that very reason: They have no other choice.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14) and the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees provide guidance to government officials for how to respond to people like these, who approach international borders fearing loss of freedom or death in their own countries — as Syrian refugees most certainly do.
Potential host countries are asked to:
- Recognize the right of refugees to seek asylum.
- Refrain from penalizing refugees for not having prior permission and/or personal documentation.
- Prohibit their forced expulsion.
- Recognize their long-term need for work, education, legal help, and documentation necessary for travel.
These international protocols highlight the need for the global community to generously support countries that bear a heavier refugee burden than others.
Unfortunately, these important protocols are unenforceable, as seen recently when desperate refugees were rebuffed and scorned by some European countries. And yet these protocols are totally in line with clear biblical mandates. Among God’s first commands to the Israelites were “love the foreigner residing among you” and “provide the poor wanderer with shelter.”
Jesus commands us to love our neighbor, revealing in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is, basically, anyone who is in need. In a hauntingly challenging passage in Matthew 25, Jesus commands us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, offer hospitality to the lonely, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison and welcome the stranger—a pretty ideal list of what it takes to care for a refugee.
Now is the time for the global church to live out this mandate like never before. Here are some practical ways we can do that:
1. Urge President Obama and members of Congress to significantly increase both the total number of refugees admitted in the coming year and, in particular, the number of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Consider signing the White House petition calling for 65,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the US by 2016.
But surely the US can do even more. Citizens successfully challenged their government to do more in Iceland. And in response to public outcry in Europe, the president of the European Commission has announced sweeping new provisions to deal with Europe’s refugee crisis.
A new initiative — We Welcome Refugees — was recently launched to catalyze a Christian response to the refugee crisis. To show compelling Christian support for increased governmental action, add your name to a growing list of American Christians committed to supporting refugees.
2. Prayerfully consider how you will help support those refugees when they arrive. Will you financially sponsor a family through a respected resettlement agency like World Relief? Will you volunteer to personally help refugees navigate the complexities of a new community while healing from trauma and loss?
3. Give generously to organizations caring for refugees in first countries of refuge. One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Jordan has a long history of hospitality to refugees, first Palestinians, then Iraqis and now 600,000 Syrians. Turkey has taken in nearly 2 million Syrians.
In recent years, every organization listed below has been critically underfunded. So give generously to these or others you prefer:
4. Encourage your church to partner with churches in Europe that are embracing refugees. Ask the leadership of your church or denomination to identify those churches. Then help provide funding for the supplies and staffing they need to serve refugees entering their communities.
In the coming weeks and months, We Welcome Refugees will also provide information for partnerships through existing global church networks.
5. Pray a simple prayer: God, what is mine to do? None of us can do everything, but we can all do something — big or small, according to what we’ve been given. And if we all do something, we can change the stories being lived out across deserts and oceans, at country borders and in the hearts of men, women and children just like us.
More than borders, I think it’s been hearts that have been closed to the suffering masses seeking refuge. But a photograph of one small child opened a crack in millions of uninformed or hardened hearts. As one who believes that we are all part of the same human family, I pray that the gates of our hearts will continue to open — like never before.
Lynne Hybels is co-founder and Advocate for Global Engagement at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, and author of “Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.” She blogs at lynnehybels.com. Follow her on Twitter @lynnehybels.