“The churches are everywhere but they are all empty! The mosques are too far!” – these are the cries from refugees in our area.
I’ve been asked to speak on culture and healthcare at a monthly gathering to providers who work at a refugee center at a large medical center here in Boston. As is usually the case, initially I am honored to be asked and excited about the topic – an opportunity to communicate some of the needs that I have seen through the years in refugee communities. The minute I hang up the phone, or in this case, answer the email I think “What did I do? There is no way I am capable of this. I can’t believe I said yes”. Somehow I get through that and move forward thinking about both audience and topic as I frame my message.
As I think about refugees and their status in the greater Boston area it is best summed up in the phrase above: “Churches are many and empty; Mosques are too far.” That one phrase holds hopes, dreams, expectations, losses, grief, hurt, isolation, loss of identity and familiarity, and a sense of being ‘other’. Within the phrase, the importance of faith is understood and acknowledged, for without faith, the refugee really has lost everything.
To understand the context of the statement, it is helpful to know a bit about New England churches. Picture postcards show the quintessential New England scene – a church steeple stretching to the sky above trees, brilliant with colors, a sign to anyone who knows the area that fall foliage is at its peak. No matter how small the town, there is always a church, sometimes with the reminders of a time past when parking spaces were limited to the pastor, the church secretary and the church organist, and labeled as such. In some towns, the churches have been turned into antique stores, or condominiums, with rooms that previously held church meetings and potlucks now full of both beautiful and ugly antiques or, in the case of condominiums, the personal items of the owner.
A beautiful brick church in the center of Boston that used to boast a congregation of hundreds now has 50 people attending, most of them refugees from the Horn of Africa. By contrast, until June of 2009 and the opening of a large mosque in Roxbury, the closest mosque was in Quincy to the south of Boston.
While the cry of the refugee may seem dramatic, depending on where they live it’s entirely accurate.
The journey of the refugee is a long one. Under international law a refugee is defined as being outside of their home country and having a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” This is in contrast to the immigrant, who generally has a choice to leave their home country. The journey begins with fleeing home, whether it be mud hut or mansion and moves on to temporary settlement either in refugee camps or with relatives. Ultimately the refugee is a victim of decision-making that is out of their control but will dictate the opportunities and choices they have for the rest of their lives.
The first option is staying where they are in the initial host country. Host countries rarely want that. Refugees don’t pay well and governments are often dealing with monumental problems with the populations that are already there.
The second option is being sent back to their countries of origin. Refugees never want that, not because they don’t miss home, but rarely is their home country in a place where they would be welcomed and often what awaits them is at best marginalization, and at worst prison, torture, and death.
The third option is resettlement in another country. This is usually the option that refugees long for. They have often heard stories from relatives or friends who have resettled in other countries, and while some of the stories are scary, there are other stories where they know their uncle is building a successful business and has “a house with a bathroom and indoor plumbing.” When you are sharing an outdoor latrine with 100 other families, that sounds palatial. Despite being the best option, this too is a long journey and the task of resettlement is enormous. The journey is also subject to politics and process, making it less about people’s safety and more about government bureaucracy and the political climate.
The organization Refugees International raises awareness for refugees and the issues confronting refugees. An old blog post on the site speaks to the plight of the refugee with this statement:
The vulnerability of being stateless is captured in the descriptive words of a bidun (an Arabic word meaning ‘without’) living in Kuwait who told me, “Our lives have been stolen. We are just like bodies lying in the street”
Part of resettlement is a chance to regain a life lost. Through resettling and healing, gradually a refugee can learn that every time they hear a car back firing, it’s not a bomb. Or hearing the sirens of a police car doesn’t mean total devastation. No matter how frustrated people may be with the United States, it is still a country that can bring safety and new life to those who have lost both. Cynics may cringe at the words on Lady Liberty, but those who step off planes at JFK view the inscription with hope and promise.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.