In light of the “refugee crisis” in Europe and fearful refugee policies mounting in the United States, it is not surprising that many believe the first course of action provided to refugees is resettlement. That, however, is not the case, nor should it be.
Our first course of action is and ought to be the empowerment of refugees to stay where they are.
The chief problem for most refugees is not that they want to leave; it’s that they feel they have no choice but to leave. Uprooted people around the globe have been forced into a position where they cannot afford their basic needs, cannot provide shelter or quality education for their children, cannot find decent jobs, and many feel unsafe or unwanted. What parent would not want to seek out a better home and a better future for their family?
Forced flight is no one’s desire. I remember numerous Syrian priests telling me that they wanted the West to stop sponsoring the exodus of their congregants. The world needs moderates and minorities—especially Christians—to stay in hard places, amid difficult circumstances, the abunas said. “But,” added one of the priests, “if we advise them to stay, we have to provide a way for them to do it.”
Of course, it would not be right for any Westerner to tell an Arab, African, or Asian refugee that he or she must remain in a warzone or settle for raising a family in a refugee camp. That is a decision between refugees and God. But, as the Church, we should do everything in our power to enable and empower uprooted people to maintain roots in the soil they have always known.
So how does the Church empower refugees to stay in or near their homelands, rather than seek resettlement in faraway countries? I propose four practical actions.
Practical Action 1: Give Money
An Iraqi woman from near Erbil who now lives on the outskirts of Beirut told me she wanted to go back to her home country. Her family was able to register with the UN in Lebanon, but they are not receiving any assistance. They cannot afford medical care for her husband—who was injured in his day-labor job and has no insurance—or educational costs for her two young children—who, even if their tuition was free, would still be without a means to cover transportation costs and the notebooks and pencils needed for classes. The mother wanted to return to Iraq, but found out her house there was destroyed.
Another refugee here in Lebanon gave all of his savings to a smuggler who promised to get him on a boat to Europe. He was going to find a place for his family to resettle, but the police arrested him before he could board. He was down to almost nothing before he became desperate enough to try the open sea; now he has even less.
The mother of “the first Christian killed in Homs” is teary when she talks about her family. Her husband died of a heart attack in 2009 because, if war doesn’t kill you, there are still other ways to die. Her son, the martyr, was killed because fighters at the time were collecting all the Kia Rioses they could find. They killed him for his car. She fled because Homs was under siege, because she’d lost everything and everyone that mattered to her. What she was fleeing from was poverty and death.
In the shadow of these stories, the most obvious and practical step for the Church in North America to take to encourage and empower displaced people to stay in or near their home communities is to give money.
You knew this was coming. Because it makes sense. Because it works. Because even though you can’t solve global crises by throwing money at them, it sure does help.
Praise God the Western Church is absolutely loaded!
The examples of and commands for generosity in the Word are many. In 1 Timothy we read that the rich are to “do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” Acts reminds us that “we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Jesus also gives us the heroine of the generous widow. And whether we interpret the story by emphasizing the woman’s magnificently risky generosity or by pointing to the political and religious powers that maintain their hegemony through the exploitation of the poor, we still see the significance of giving and of standing up to corrupt authorities.
Humanitarian aid does just that—it supports the downtrodden and opposes the powers of oppression.
The bottom line is that aid organizations don’t take in enough money to respond adequately to modern levels of displacement. The war in Syria is the most talked-about, hard-hitting incident of displacement in the world, and yet the United Nations has never received the full amount of financial support it required to aid the conflict’s displaced people. Not even close.
In 2015, a year with record numbers of refugees and one in which the UN told the world it would cost $8.6 billion to meet the most minimal needs of Syria’s displaced people, barely 55 percent of the organization’s humanitarian response budget was funded.
The requested sums are not arbitrary, as though failing to reach them is without real-world repercussions. To the contrary, the world’s inability or, more accurately, its unwillingness to give the necessary funds has real consequences. People go without food. Children go without education and vaccinations. Sick people die from treatable diseases. Cities become congested with impoverished, informal workers and kids with nothing to do.
Whenever we talk about billions of dollars, these are not paltry sums, but they are also not as astronomical as we might presume. In the same year the UN requested the $8.6 billion, US arms sales brought in $46.6 billion. The Catholic Church in America is thought to have an annual budget of over $170 billion. The American Church more broadly—among the wealthiest organizations in history—contributes an estimated $1.2 trillion annually to American society.
It’s not a sexy solution, perhaps least of all for the Church that worships a poor Christ, but cash is a fundamental and easy response to refugeeism. It feeds, clothes, shelters, heals, trains, employs, equips, and empowers refugees, and helps to keep them in the lands that are theirs.
Practical Action 2: Meet Basic and Not-So-Basic Needs
I started this series with the story of Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish child who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and sparked wildfire awareness of the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. Aylan was from Kobane, Syria.
A report from the Kobane Reconstruction Board in the spring of 2015 told the world that half of the town had been destroyed, with some neighborhoods suffering 90 percent damage. Six of 25 schools in Kobane were beyond repair and all the rest required some degree of renovation. Two of four hospitals were destroyed. Electrical and water infrastructure was severely damaged, much of it in need of rehabilitation or replacement. Fuel was in short supply and 80 percent of the farms, orchards, and larger agricultural sector was destroyed. Kobane is also littered with munitions and debris, and contaminated with mines and improvised explosive devices. Even in that hellish landscape, tens of thousands of displaced people are living and trying to return.
And that’s only one town. One out of thousands around the world where danger lurks in the streets, where lights don’t come on, where food is scarce.
We—you and me, your church and your small group—can help.
The Western Church is rich in cash—sometimes richer in cash than it is in love. It is a wonderful privilege and a necessary good that we give generously from our treasuries. But we can also give and turn that cash into material resources. Food, water, clothing, school supplies, medicine—it’s all necessary. The need for nutrients never goes down. The need for shoes and toothbrushes is almost beyond belief. The need for educational tools is desperate. What a witness it is when churches take seriously the commands of Christ and literally feeds the hungry.
Donors in the United States and Canada love to pay for food and blankets, as well we should, but we must not forget other needs that are often overlooked. It’s easy and obvious to give canned goods and warm jackets, but it’s less obvious and less attractive to give pamphlets about hygiene or pay for conferences about grassroots reconciliation, to sponsor demining teams or restock a health clinic.
Material resources are vital, but not the only kind of need. I will never forget the day a bishop from Syria told me, five years into the war and during a particularly violent spell in the siege of Aleppo, “The biggest need in Syria right now is not food; it’s trauma healing.”
By the indwelling power of the Spirit and the hope that comes from God, the Church can provide trauma relief. Train partners in trauma healing. Send our psychologists and counselors, send our pastors and social workers. Maybe not to Kobane (though maybe), but to Beirut and Kuala Lumpur and Athens and Durbin. Collect coloring books and crayons for children, flashlights and picture frames for adults. Addressing soul trauma is a place where the Church can thrive.
If Maslow were here, too many refugees would tell him even their most basic needs—physical, psychological, spiritual—are not being met. The Church in the West can help to meet them. It has known poverty. It has known need. It has known trauma. And, ultimately, it has known reprieve for the body and comfort for the soul. Let us share that knowledge and draw refugees into a reality not rooted in lack, but in abundance.
UNOCHA. Humanitarian Response Plan 2016 and the 2016-2017 3RP (Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan). In 2012, the call was for $836 million USD, a paltry sum by standards established later in the war. Seventy percent of that money was given. The next year, 72 percent of the $4.39 billion requested came in. In 2014, only 58 percent of the requested financial aid was donated.
 Joe Gould. “Pentagon Agency Handled Record Foreign Arms Sales in 2015”. DefenseNews. Oct. 18, 2015.
 The Economist. “The Catholic Church in America: The Working”. Aug. 16, 2012.
 Brian J. Grim. “The Socio-Economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis”. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, Vol. 12, Article 3. 2016.
 UNOCHA. “Humanitarian Bulletin Syria”. Issue 2. June 2015.