In Psalm 142:4, David recounts:
Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
This is the state of many Christian refugees in the Middle East today.
To date, the Obama administration has chosen to resettle about 3,500 refugees in the U.S. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 by Islamist terrorists, U.S. concerns about accepting Syrian refugees soared. Discovering the origins of these militants increased fear that other terrorists would use the migrant crisis to pose as refugees. Last November, a symposium in these pages discussed these concerns and the tension Americans face in simultaneously attending to national security and showing compassion towards refugees in the Middle East. In particular, Marc LiVecche and David R. Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and current national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, discussed how enacting justice, mercy, and prudence takes various forms with regards to the refugee crisis. The pressing current problem, however, is the diminishing moral obligation Americans feel in helping refugees. Worse still, the Christian response lacks consensus.
On June 13th, 2016, Brookings hosted an event where Shibley Telhami shared data from a survey conducted on American public opinion towards refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Libya. 56% of respondents believe the U.S. should accept refugees from Syria if extensive background checks have insured they have no terrorist links. Though most respondents favor taking in refugees from the Middle East, assuming they are screened, Americans disagree on their moral responsibility in helping refugees in the Middle East. Only 50% of respondents felt that Americans have a moral obligation to help Libyan refugees, 48% for Syrian refugees, and 45% for Iraqi refugees.
Telhami expounds on how troubling these statistics are. He thinks these numbers are puzzling, because over 80% of respondents say that the Golden Rule (treating others as you want them to treat you) ranks as the single most important principle in their lives. Despite this result, Americans’ attitude on their role in the crisis is changing. Americans are vocalizing a desire to help, but when it comes to practical implementations, not many are willing to risk the cost. This cost, for some, comes in the form of admitting refugees into the country; for others, it is prioritizing U.S. foreign aid to refugees facing persecution.
Most respondents of the survey, however, favor charities and non-governmental organizations taking the lead in providing help to refugees around the world. But these charities and NGOs are having a difficult time providing aid, and especially aid that is long-lasting. NGOs are mainly providing medical help, food, and shelter, but these organizations are small and lack stable funding. This is the case for Joint Help for Kurdistan, which was forced to close a bakery that fed thousands of people daily due to a transfer of funding to medical assistance.
Christian refugees face an especially bleak reality. The United Nations funds non-discriminatory refugee camps, so they provide help based on vulnerability and humanitarian principles, not religious affiliation. However, a director of Open Doors USA, a Christian organization that helps the persecuted, confirmed the discrimination and mistreatment Christians face in these government-run camps. This discrimination tends to happen in UN-supported camps that are run by local authorities in places across Europe and the Middle East. Christians are simply not adequately safe in refugee camps, which causes them to avoid the camps, according to Jonathan Witt, research fellow at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids. Kiri Kankhwende, senior press officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, also said Christians especially are concerned about the intimidation they face in camps, the lack of security, and the infiltration of extremists into camps. Only a fraction of Syrian refugees are Christians who reside in camps, though Syrians are the largest group of displaced people at an estimated 4.2 million in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
Due to Christian refugees’ circumstances and the persecution they face (not to mention other minorities and those targeted by terrorist groups) and the survey by Telhami, it would be a tragedy for Christians to adopt the same declining American attitude towards the refugee crisis, and especially persecuted minorities in the Middle East.
Countless times Scripture calls Christians to extend help to all who seek refuge. Christians are called to love refugees (Leviticus 19:33-34) and not to oppress foreigners in their communities (Exodus 23:9), remembering how God’s people were all originally cast out as foreigners in Egypt. Disregarding ethnic background or birthplace, Scripture is full of instances where the Lord responds to His people who are forced from their homes and seek refuge.
In truth, the Bible is full of refugee stories. The book starts with a description of Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden in Genesis and ends with John recording Revelation during exile on the Isle of Patmos. In between, stories include Moses fleeing to the desert to escape Pharaoh (Exodus 2:11-4:31), David fleeing Saul (1 Samuel 18:6-20:42), the Jewish exiles of Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt when King Herod sought to kill him (Matthew 2:13-15).
Faithfully, the Lord never leaves His people as orphans, endless wanderers or helpless at the hands of the wicked. For this reason, Christian Americans ought not to become complacent, forgetting the help refugees need around the world or Christians facing persecution. Christians ought to stand against the worldly attitude that encourages a diminished sense of obligation to help the refugee crisis.
Advocating that the Obama administration accept and resettle more refugees than has been previously decided and separating these people an ocean away from their homeland and ethnic territory isn’t necessarily the best idea, though. The best way to aid refugees in the crisis, then, needs thoughtful consideration. Christians can find a biblical basis to aid in the refugee crisis by looking to Scripture and observing how the Lord helps His people.
Oft-overlooked, Psalm 107 is a helpful resource that describes the Lord’s response to His people seeking refuge. The Psalm opens with King David giving thanks to God for his steadfast love. Verses 2-5 describe the circumstances of people seeking refuge due to “trouble” and wandering in “desert wastes” with no “city to dwell in.” Verse 6 joyously articulates how the Lord then answers the cries of His people through deliverance:
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and He delivered them from their distress.
The Lord establishes a city for them to live and flourish in, described in verses 36-38:
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
and they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields and plant vineyards
and get a fruitful yield.
By His blessing they multiply greatly,
and He does not let their livestock diminish.
A city is instituted for these refugees out of the Lord’s mercy after He heard their cries for help. The global Christian is at the least called to remember, through prayer, Christians and all those around the world who are fleeing danger and seeking refuge. Though the Lord ultimately supplies all we need, even to Christian refugees facing the gravest persecution in the Middle East, what ought help look like from Christians in America?
Psalm 107 describes the Lord establishing a city for refugees, and executive director of the Philos Project Robert Nicholson’s idea of safe-havens for persecuted minority groups, especially Assyrian Christians, throughout the Middle East is not far-fetched from this biblical picture. In an event hosted by Providence in April, 2016, Nicholson said that “the best way to help persecuted Christians is to find a way to ensure their ongoing survival inside their historic homeland.” In this way, U.S. policy in the Middle East could focus on aiding the creation of ethnically-centered safe-havens throughout the region.
Nicholson argues elsewhere that the refugee crisis and victory in the fight against ISIS must come from dealing with the root of the problems in the region. A solution to the refugee crisis, then, is territorial in nature. Resettling a majority of refugees to a different region in Europe or overseas in the U.S. cannot work as long-lasting aid. Territorial limits are aspects of creation instituted by God too, according to Nicholson, as are ethnic communities providing their own security. The autonomous safe-havens that Nicholson describes would respect the ethnic and territorial boundaries that people in the region know and desire. They would also provide protection for minority groups, like Assyrian Christians and Yezidis, but couldn’t be instituted without the help of U.S. policy.
Economically, too, it is wiser for the U.S. to support refugees living closer to their homeland in the Middle East. The cost of caring for a refugee from the Middle East in Jordan is ten times less than the cost for a refugee living in Germany. Basic food, water, education, and more could be given for $3,000 per refugee in Jordan, compared to $30,000 per refugee in Germany. Nicholson’s statement, again, resounds in the search for a wise U.S. policy solution to the refugee crisis.
The best U.S. consensus on helping refugees does not simply concede on allowing a larger population of refugees impulsively into the country, and neither does it proliferate the idea that Christian Americans do not have a place to advocate U.S. governmental aid in the Middle East. Nor is it wise to discriminate when resettling refugees into the U.S. based on religion, an echo of President Obama’s sentiment of the undemocratic and un-American principle that the U.S. should only accept Christians fleeing Syria. My hope is an increase in prayerful thought and dialogue on practical, applicable ways that our allegiance to a God that helps the orphan, the homeless, and the refugee will influence Christian consensus and action.
Jessica Meyers is an intern for Providence. She studied at Westmont College, with a focus on Political Science and English.
Photo Credit: Refugees living in an abandoned factory near Saida, Lebanon. By Anthony Gale via Flickr.