Expanding Our Empathy for the Refugee Crisis




I hold two passports, for two nationalities. Two passports which both rank in the top five most powerful passports in the world. Between these two documents, few places are restricted to me. I can travel, and have travelled, all over the world, rarely questioned. I have worked in foreign countries. All of Europe is open to me.

Recently a friend was discussing the social justice issue that we are apathetic to, but that we will be accountable for. I thought I knew what she was going to say, until I didn’t.

Like a truth-punch to the gut, she said, “The issue of today, the one that will mark us, is the refugee crisis and how we respond to it.”

My two passports and I walked away convicted of our silence and our apathy in the face of suffering.

Many children born to refugee families are not even granted the right of nationality. They have no access to a passport. Of the thousands forced to flee their homes because of conflict, crisis, persecution, or economic despair, many leave documents behind, or have a passport that is powerless. And those individuals attempting the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean from the Middle East and North Africa, face the chance that they will be denied asylum upon arrival.

Those who are fleeing are landing at our door, and Europe’s doorstep is an ocean teeming with desperation, young families, and dead bodies, but we are afraid to open the door because we operate under the assumption that those who try to enter will lessen our comfort, will bring danger with them, will take jobs and resources away from the rest of us.

So much of the church is not ready to receive these people in flight. So many of us feel helpless to respond. We are silent, while those who run with little other option beg to be heard.

We pray for Syria, like a side note. We accept a few into our community.

Yet, as the church, we believe God’s love is big, his arms are wide, his table is laden with good things to be shared.

I confess I fall into the fear trap too:

“We can’t accommodate everyone.

“It will cripple the economy.”

“Europe already lets too many people in.”

According to an article I read recently, empathy is a choice. It is easier to empathize on an individual level then with the masses. It is easier to extend ourselves to those like ourselves. Part of it is self-preservation. We can’t feel all the feels for all those who are suffering, and yet, perhaps God can give us more. Perhaps we can choose to see our neighbour as those who are arriving on our shores, as much as those who live next door.

We don’t let the more 9 million+ internationally and internally displaced Syrians into our hearts, perhaps because the conflict feels so big or has been going on so long. I suppose I was one who hoped that the war would have ended three years ago.

Instead of a quick fix, we must choose to engage and extend our empathy for the long and slow road.

It is not just Syrians who need us to remember them; it is the Eritreans, the Afghanis, Somalians, the Rohingya boat people, those in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Burundians who have fled to neighbouring countries.

The number of those displaced is not dwindling, but the available aid is.

Governments are pledging less, which means budgets are reduced and the essentials—food, water, shelter—are more difficult to access.

When Jesus was a small child, his parents fled to Egypt to escape persecution. We know the story but perhaps we forget sometimes to see, in the child refugee, our God-in-flesh who was once just like this, an alien in a neighbouring country, seeking refuge. Seeking safety.

The magnitude of need is overwhelming. The 1,800+ recorded deaths at sea this year. The estimated thousands arriving on the shores of Greece and Italy each week. The tens of thousands languishing in camps awaiting assistance that is slow to come. A lack of response can mean their death sentence.

I may not think to speak of their plight every day, but for today, let us remember this crisis which receives so little time and attention.

God-work is breaking down divisions and making it possible to see beyond fear and scarcity to human hearts. It is being quick to respond but not quick to fix, and it is accepting that we are all strangers in this world.

To those who are without a home, a country, a nationality, a place to be safe:

We don’t forget you.

We don’t turn away.

We ask the almighty Father God, who sees the suffering of all humanity, to expand our hearts big enough to reflect his love for you.

May our hospitality and generosity be quick to arrive.

May our prayers embrace the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.

Teach us your ways Lord. Mark us with your infinite love.


Image credit: Al Jazeera English