Refugees: A spirit of welcome is the antidote to anxiety

By Fr Thomas Smolich SJ, 1 September 2017

Thomas H. Smolich, S.J. is the International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). On 27 August 2017 he recently gave a powerful talk to 200 people for the launch of the Diocese of Parramatta initiative, “Walking with Refugees and People Seeking Protection”. Below is the transcript and video of his talk.

I am honoured to be with you today as the year for “Walking with Refugees” begins. JRS began in 1980 as a response to the Vietnamese refugee crisis. Our goal is to accompany, serve, and advocate for and with forcibly displaced people.

As we begin, I invite you to imagine you are with the Holy Trinity, looking down on the world today.  What does our loving God see?

Undoubtedly the divine persons would notice that at least 65 million of our brothers and sisters are forcibly on the move: refugees who left their home countries, and displaced persons forced to move within their countries. These 65 million are over 2.5 times the population of Australia.

Let me mention a few other realities of these sisters and brothers.

  • Only 50% of them receive a primary education, about 25% have access to secondary education, and less than 1% receive tertiary…imagine the waste of human potential in those
  • Their average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years: not 17 months, 17
  • In 2016, an average of 28,300 people were displaced every day…every day! Last year, 10.3 Million people were newly displaced; about 1/3 of them forced to leave their own

Numbers are nameless and faceless. It is important for us to bring to our minds and hearts a person, a story. Fatima, her husband Sameer, and their two sons used to live in Damascus, Syria. She worked in a store, and he was a tour guide for Italian visitors, a job that ended in 2011 when the war began. They had to move two years later because their apartment was on the line between the government army and rebel groups, which ended her job. The second move ended when their sons’ school became the target of mortar rounds. Finally, without income, they found no safe place, and when or if their sons came of age, they would be conscripted into someone’s army. They left Syria in 2015, arrived in Rome, and I met them through Centro Astalli, a welcoming program of JRS-Italy. Fatima and over 10 million Syrians cannot access the basic human right of safety and security. Who can blame them if they want to find it somewhere else? Wouldn’t we do the same?

There are many ways to analyse the global reality of refugees and to ask why we are unable to resolve the situation. We can approach it from a human rights perspective, look at legal frameworks, analyse economic models, offer political analysis. These are all valid and offer us important insights.

Fr Thomas Smolich SJ, Director - Jesuit Refugee Services International

Fr Thomas Smolich SJ, Director – Jesuit Refugee Services International Photo: Diocese of Parramatta

However, I want to suggest that the problem is fundamentally spiritual. Not a religious problem – this is not about Muslims and Christians– but a spiritual problem in the depths of who we are as human beings. As societies, we are all wrestling with fear and anxiety, and to coin a phrase, we are surrounded by “arsonists of fear.”

Fear is a human reality. Each of us has her or his own fears–situations or people that put us in a state of discomfort or apprehension. There are things to fear. While terrorist actions in the world are is statistically rare, their randomness—the recent events in Barcelona, a thwarted bombing scheme in Sydney—is frightening.

Our fears – real and legitimate, or out of proportion and unrealistic – impact us. For many, fear can cross the line to anxiety, a feeling of worry about something with an uncertain outcome. Anxiety occurs when a reaction is out of proportion with what might be normally expected in a situation. Anxiety has become a dominant response to refugees and migrants. We are disproportionately afraid of what “they” will do to us. Some worry about their “way of life” when imagining Muslim refugees in their lands, or fret about their personal safety when being “overwhelmed” by migrants. Economically challenged communities think about “those who will take what little I have.”

Politicians act as arsonists of fear, exploiting anxieties for electoral gain.

I am not talking about Australia here; I am thinking about my own USA…but it could be said in Britain, Kenya, India, Australia, etc.

Rational analysis debunks these anxieties. Talk of a world refugee “crisis” is hyperbole. In Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, over 1 million, 1 in 4, are Syrian refugees. Australia formally   allows   19,000   refugees   a   year; 6 Million would bring the numbers to Lebanon’s level. For the USA to reach that level, it would have to welcome 80 million refugees; Europe, 145 million. Lebanon has a crisis; Australia and other countries suffer refugee anxiety, an irrational response to legitimate concerns.

Politicians act as arsonists of fear, exploiting anxieties for electoral gain.

Anxiety is a terrible spirit or perspective in which to make a decision, because it lacks freedom. When we are afraid, we do not see reality well. When we are anxious, we can think of little else but the object of that anxiety.

In the spirituality of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, anxiety is an “attachment,” something blocking us from seeing reality as it is. Attachments get in the way of the freedom to see the world as God sees it, as the trinity looks down upon   the world. Anxiety   paralyzes us:   it   leads   to isolation, to mistrust, and to the attitude of “us versus them,” and the arsonists have a field day.  This is fundamentally a spiritual issue.

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Fear and anxiety propel us to look for security; but solutions based in fear are typically so lacking in perspective that the desired security is fundamentally an illusion. Closing the Mediterranean, the southern border of the USA, or Australia’s seaways to refugees may seem to bring national security. How illusionary is it to think that conditions of war in Syria or the plight of religious minorities like the Rohingya will not continue to force people to find a better life? Decisions based in fear and anxiety are not the answer to the needs of our sisters and brothers needing safety and protection.

The first letter of John does offer us an answer. In chapter 4 verse 18 John writes:

“In love there is no room for fear; perfect love drives out fear.”

This may seem like a tall order, and we have to be realistic that our love will never be perfect. But I think the invitation is clear: a stance of love, a stance of openness to the other will not let fear become the dominant mode of decision. So if not fear, then what? How might our admittedly imperfect love help us look as the Holy Trinity does on 65 million global refugees?

The path is found in coming to know refugees and migrants as human beings, realizing our stories have more in common that what separates us. Let me offer story from Afghanistan.

“In love there is no room for fear; perfect love drives out fear.”

As a solider fighting against the Taliban, Ahmed and his family were threatened multiple times before they fled to Pakistan. Unable to live safely there either, Ahmed chose to come to Australia. He had fought with Australian troops in Afghanistan, so he presumed he would be welcomed.

But he arrived by boat in 2013, and has been caught in the national security/deterrence policy in force since 2012. He is now part of the “legacy caseload” for the October 1 deadline, and even if his case is approved, he will require a new visa status five years later.   Only then could the possibility of bringing his wife and children to Australia be a possibility.

RELATED: Migrant and Refugee Sunday 2017

WATCH: Bishop Vincent’s Address at Migrant and Refugee Sunday 2017

READ: Bishop Vincent’s Address at Migrant and Refugee Sunday 2017

VIEW: Images from Migrant and Refugee Sunday 2017

What can hearing Aamir’s story do for us? I hope that it builds a human connection and diminishes the spirit of anxiety in us. Perhaps this encounter can lead to welcome, an extension of solidarity in which we see Christ in one another.

I am not saying this welcome is easy, nor am I saying that everyone has the right to live in Australia or anywhere else. What I am suggesting, however, is that a spirit of welcome is the antidote to anxiety. The Bible is filled with stories of welcome that are hard and ultimately life-giving, from Joseph welcoming the brothers who planned to kill him, to the good Samaritan who is neighbour to the wounded Jew on the side of the road, to themost fundamental gospel story, Matthew 25: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Welcome is the antidote to anxiety.

I cannot end this talk without referring to Pope Francis, currently the world’s most respected leader and a tireless supporter of refugees.

“…the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.” We all need each other.”

In February, the Holy Father gave a speech in which he said we must use four verbs in first person singular and plural – that is, I and we must welcome, protect, promote, and integrate refugees and migrants among us.

Ultimately, becoming “I and we” demands healing, learning, and hard work together. It is a healing of our personal and communal spirit, mutual learning, love put into action, that change the ways we think and feel.I believe that parishes and faith communities are the ideal home for this work of welcome. I see this going on throughout the world: parishes offering a home to a refugee family or two, as Pope Francis suggested a year ago; communities engaging government representatives on the needs of refugees and migrants. Australia has a fundamental spirit of welcome in the culture. Arsonists of fear do not have a natural home here or in the human spirit.

Today I invite you to become part of the “we” that Pope Francis speaks of, the we who welcome, protect, promote and integrate people like Ahmed and Fatima and their families. Let me close with an image from Pope Francis’ recent TED talk:

“…the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.” We all need each other.”

Thomas H. Smolich, S.J. International Director Jesuit Refugee Service

27 August 2017

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