To line up all the blunt realities of refugeeism—the pertinent facts and numbers about displaced people, causes of death, crumbling economies, stateless persons, and overcrowded camps—and then fire them off in a single go, it almost normalizes them. They can become rote, dull.
Try taking them one at a time.
Imagine you or someone you care about is among their number. Ponder for a full minute what it means to know that food exists somewhere, but you literally cannot get to it. That cluster bombs are falling, but you cannot escape. That your children are now so accustomed to war that they can’t sleep without the serenade of gunfire and sirens.
Most of us cannot imagine it. We cannot empathize. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a blessing.
Try all the same.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day these are merely summary blurbs, statistics. Merely concepts. Cynics would call them propaganda; Christians must call them reality. And we must recognize that every number, every bit of data, is a real person.
With a story.
With a life.
With a family.
But do they have a future?
It would be easy to write story after story of desperate, dying people. Trauma. Pervasive hopelessness. When refugees tell me why they want to leave the Middle East, the most common reason is not, “Because it’s dangerous,” or “Because we have bad memories here,” or “Because we don’t have food or jobs or money.” The most common thing they say, by far, is, “We have no future here.”
I don’t know what it’s like to feel this way—to feel that I have no future. Sure, I’ve felt uncertain. I’ve felt that maybe I won’t do all the things I want or become the man I should be or find the job or the relationships or the “purpose” that I hope for. But never in my life have I felt that I have no future. In refugee communities, though, the sentiment is omnipresent.
The everywhere-ness of refugee despair is compounded by the enormous scope of the issue and the urgency of the need. Refugeeism is not like other global problems. It demands immediate and constant response. Problems of unjust laws, poor economics, political corruption, and the ravaging of creation are terrifying and must be dealt with quickly and purposefully—some pose an imminent threat on a very real timeline—but refugees, faced with daily need of food and water, safety and disease prevention and trauma healing, present the world with a problem that is relentless. It cannot be dealt with later. The question is so haunting because we are always in its shadow. It must be answered today, now, always, repeated ad nauseum until the root problems are pulled up and thrown out.
Refugeeism is the chronic symptom of larger global diseases. The symptom must be treated and managed. But our treatment of uprootedness on its own, as with so many aches and pains, is only a short-term solution. Deep, lasting healing will require eliminating the underlying diseases themselves.
Even so, the symptom of enduring international homelessness is pervasive and always pressing.
Different from so many other trials of the international community, the presence of refugees does not allow us to take a recess to clear our heads, nor hold off on aid until next week, nor wait until “those other issues” are resolved. Refugees need water and bandages today. Without the constant attention of the world, they might quite literally be dead tomorrow.
This is the plain reality, difficult as it is to appreciate in a time when so much suffering seems surreal and when distance and digitalization create the impression that horror must always be fiction, that what we see on the news—and what we never see—is of the same quality as war movies and video games. The reality is that there are real, deadly deadlines. Help can come too late. For the uprooted, it often does.
If this perpetual immediacy suggests that refugees are a nag on the rest of world, vacuuming up resources and requiring constant attention, then we have begun to think properly. The problem of refugees is a nag. It is an absolute black hole, swallowing blood and treasure without regard for national borders or human dignity.
We should be annoyed.
We should feel the drain.
But our frustration must not be aimed at refugees themselves—for what have they done except try to survive? That is no more or less than you and I would do in the same circumstances. Rather, our anger at this massive and ghoulish issue must be directed at the real culprits—the policies and prejudices, the systems and savagery, and the despots and presidents who give a passing nod to each of them.
And then we must look at ourselves, at our sin, at the fallenness of our world, at the failures of our communities, and admit we can do more.