June 20th is World Refugee Day (churches will observe it Sunday June 15 or 22). The first time I heard about WRD was in Dadaab, Kenya – now earth’s largest refugee camp with 500,000 of the planet’s 15 million internationally displaced people (there’s another 30 million internally displaced).
In May 1996 I found myself at the UN’s main office in Dadaab (not New York) with organizational heads planning WRD activities. There I was representing CBM with reps from UNHCR, CARE, GTZ, IRC/RC, MSF and IOM.
It all seemed so foreign, so far from home (the acronyms didn’t help). WRD was obviously something to be observed in Africa near an actual camp. I adjusted that perception after we moved to Nairobi and WRD remained on our annual calendar – but then again most of our neighbourhood and friends were still refugees.
I assumed we’d seen our last WRD on June 20, 2011 – six days before we returned permanently to Canada. But no. By June 20, 2012 my wife Kelly was working as a settlement counsellor for government assisted refugees in Saint John and on June 20, 2013 I (as CABC’s Refugee Coordinator) was addressing a small crowd that had gathered for WRD in an uptown Saint John shopping centre.
That’s when it hit me. There had come here. Worlds I thought would never meet had collided. Yesterday I was having tea with a man from Iran who was imprisoned and tortured there and who landed here just last week. The day before Kelly had to tell Yusuf, a Somali from Dadaab, that the dentist (who’s also our dentist) can’t save any of his teeth – fairly devastating news for most 35 year-olds but not for a refugee who’s survived worse.
Part of us wants the worlds to remain separate, but I’m glad they’re not. We need each other.
As G. K. Chesterton said, “We’re all in the same boat on a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
Yes, we need to give help to one another (Canadians can offer a refugee enough peace, prosperity, acceptance and assistance for a new start). But we also need to receive help from one another.
Refugees, whether neglected in camps, nervously nestled in cities or newly arrived in Canada, have much to offer. They’ve shown me that most things in this life – possessions, health, home, friends, family and teeth are temporary and that our joy does not depend on any of them. Not all refugees are joyful. Some are still scrambling and searching. But some have found it, for some have found Jesus, who was also a refugee and who is here and there.
Thankfully there wants to come and has come here. If by any means you can take advantage of those facts, go for it. (FYI – I just received a sponsorship request for 2 Christian Iraqi women who are vulnerable, in danger and travel ready – the Canadian government will cover their first 6 months expenses – they just need a host community).