It’s finally happened. Donald Trump has issued a three-month ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries and permanently from Syria. And most of me wants to switch off the radio, turn off the news notifications on my phone, and never talk about it ever again. And actually, I feel like I have been trying to do that since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and the same day, I heard a teenager tell a girl of about 15 years old, “I’m glad that you can’t come to the UK any more. You were only taking up all our jobs anyway.” Because, whatever you might think about Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the votes in themselves stand only for so much. And it is the subsequent support of so much racism, xenophobia and individualism that is tangled up with the political events of the last year, that makes me feel so ill. The refugees that have just been banned from the US, and who are no closer to seeking safety in the UK, are no more of a “terrorist” than you or I. They are real people with children and parents and family and friends of their own. They are people who have loved and lost so much more than many of us can ever dream of. They are people who once had the same everyday concerns as so many of us:
“What shall we cook for supper? Where shall we send my child to school? What shall we do at the weekend? What shall we name our pet dog? What shall we do for grandma’s birthday?”
But losing all of that, and family and friends along the way, wasn’t enough. Because now they have to continually face more and more people continuing to turn their back on them. As I wrote about in an earlier blog post (Epiphany), after Christmas I went to visit two friends in Jordan, who are working and volunteering for a couple of different organisations which support refugees both in East Amman and in Azraq and Zaatari. And, although I had always been proud of them, it was only whilst I was there that I realised just how much of a difference they were making and how much more still needs to happen. I went with one of them to visit several Syrian and Iraqi families in East Amman who need health care, but are unable to afford it, and there was one family, in particular, who I just can’t get out of my mind. They were a single mother with two disabled children – one boy, about 4 years old, who was so weak that he could not move and was huddled under many blankets next to a gas heater, and another boy, of maybe 6 years old, who has uncontrolled fits every hour, as the family cannot afford to pay for epilepsy medicine. And there are so many others – people who cannot afford chemotherapy, diabetes medicine, antibiotics – medicine that, in the UK, we take for granted. And they were all so welcoming – smiling, offering us hot, sweet tea and filled pastries, and baking my friend, who is a nurse and offers what she can, an amazing chocolate cake. And I felt not only so helpless, but also ashamed of admitting I was from the UK – a country that I know is not doing enough to help these people who are just like us. And whilst I was there, Justin Welby’s response to the Paris attacks of November 2015 kept flooding through my mind, “God, why – why is this happening? Where are you in all of this?”
Because it’s sometimes hard enough to believe in God when everything seems well, let alone when there are people suffering so much. And, yet, interestingly, the Christian refugee families whom we visited whilst in East Amman seemed to clutch constantly to a belief in God – ornate pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary hung on every wall, televisions seem to constantly blare out religious services, and all prayed regularly. And I think that, probably, I would have thought that this might be a fear of what would happen if they didn’t believe, if it hadn’t been for a story that a single father told of his baptism a few years before. He had been baptised with one of this good friends in the river Jordan, and as he was baptised, a rainbow and a dove appeared in the sky. A rainbow, he said, a promise from God – so it must be true – God must exist. And, as he scrolled through the photos on the phone, I couldn’t help but feel that he was right – that there must be something. Something more than this, something that binds us all together, something that some of us might call God.
And in this job, there are so many rainbows. There are so many examples of blessings and special coincidences that seem to confirm my belief in God, even on days like today, when the easiest thing might be to walk away from hope, from belief, from caring at all, in fact. And, this afternoon, as I write the small talk for a Messy Church session on “loving your neighbour” and “the good Samaritan” next week, I am reminded of all the refugees who I have met over the last few months and all that they have taught me about what it means to be a neighbour. Just before Christmas, one of my friends, who runs an organisation for refugee teenagers in London, organised a residential weekend, and I had the privilege of accompanying them all on the trip. The theme for the weekend was “peace-making”, and at the end of the weekend’s workshops, my friend told all of us a story. There were some fishermen fishing with nets, catching huge amounts of fish at a time, and one man rowed over to their boats, and started taking fish from the piles that they had caught and throwing them back in the sea.
“What are you doing? You’ll never make a difference! Look how many we’ve caught!” cried the fishermen.But the man picked up one more fish and threw it into the sea, and as he did so he said,
“For this one fish, I made a difference”.
And so, on days like today, when I feel like running away, and never looking at the news again and trying not to care, I remind myself that we can all choose to make a difference wherever we can. We often don’t get to choose when we are fish in need of saving, but we can always choose to see each other as friends, and not as enemies. And that choice, at least, is one that is never taken away from us.