Christians think about Jesus Christ as a prophet and God’s Son, but he was also a refugee. The Gospel of Matthew teaches that when Herod the King learned from the Magi that the future king had been born, he attempted to kill all children born in Bethlehem and in the near vicinity (Matt. 2:13–17). But an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take his family and escape to Egypt. Thus, Jesus Christ became a refugee child. Matthew tells us very little about the Lord’s life as a refugee. All we know is that God guided them in the beginning after Jesus’ escape to Egypt.
Of course, one may dive into the details and argue — by projecting modern concepts of population movements — whether Jesus was a refugee or a displaced person. A refugee leaves for another nation like a Syrian coming to the US. A displaced person leaves for another part of her own nation like a Syrian escaping from Idlib to Damascus in order to avoid being gassed. From a modern legal-technical point of view, Jesus was a displaced person because Egypt belonged to the Roman Empire just as Judea did. But modern concepts do not deny the reality of the loss, the uprooted-ness, the disorientation, the psychological trauma, and the marginalization that characterize all strangers who are forced to leave their land.
The other issue we need to consider is the age of Christ. When Jesus traveled to Egypt, he was two years old or less (Matt. 2:16). I’m tempted to say that Jesus the child did not know what was going on, so in a sense he was shielded from the worst part of being a refugee. But that is not true. I can imagine Christ being exhausted by a long and arduous travel. I can see how the cold of the desert night, the burning sun of the Sinai, and the anxiety of Joseph and Mary affected the infant. Joseph and Mary did not own any riches of the world, so as poor parents their struggle for food and shelter in Egypt affected their child’s life. In short, Jesus is no alien to the childhood trauma that we may have no memory of yet still affects us on the deepest level.
Not only that, being forced to flee and then return to the land run by the son (Archelaus) of the killer king (Herod) left a deep mark on Jesus’ life and ministry. Recall that after King Herod’s death, his son Archelaus ruled in the province of Judea. The Romans deposed Archelaus, a historical figure, because of the population’s complaints of his brutality. Apparently Joseph returned to Israel when Archelaus was in power because he was afraid to go to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, located in Judea (Matt. 2:21). An angel guided Joseph to go to Galilee, a different province. There the family settled in Nazareth, and that’s how Jesus turned out to be Galilean. When Christ began to teach, people held his Galilean background against him (John 7:40–44), and it made Christ’s work harder. They thought the Messiah should come from Bethlehem and David’s lineage. But because Christ grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, they ignored the fact that he was born in Bethlehem and thus questioned Jesus. The Pharisees also used this argument to discredit Jesus’ disciples (John 7:52). Talk about your past overshadowing your future! All this happened because Christ fled to Egypt and was forced to return to a place not of his birth. Put simply, Christ’s life as a refugee child changed his life as a prophet, the Messiah, and God’s son.
All this is to say that Our Lord and Savior identifies with refugees, displaced people, and all those who are forced to leave their land. He was one of them. And all this is to say that a refugee inherently knows something about Christ that a person who has never been displaced does not. All this is to say that for the sake of Christ, the Bread of Life, Christians owe their help to refugees. I do understand those followers of Christ who are concerned for the safety of their country. But the country and its institutions do their jobs. They vet, interview, check backgrounds, and then let these broken images of Christ come into the nation. The church ought not to do the government’s job and idolize the state. Its job is to do what the Gospel teaches. Show hospitality to strangers, help them, and embrace those who suffer in the hands of the powers that be.
So how can you, the Christian, help refugees? Below I list several ways in order from easy to difficult. Some of these actions may coincide, and all of them are equally important. You choose whatever the Lord calls you to do. The Lord is humble, and in his humility he will take whatever you offer and use it for saving a soul, a body, a family, a relationship, and people.
Pray for refugees.
Praying is one of the most important actions you can do for refugees. You can pray for a particular refugee you know or met or saw on TV. But you can also pray for refugees elsewhere or for a resettlement program to work according to God’s will. Pray especially for their safety, resilience, and endurance. Pray so that God may feed their bodies but also their souls. Remember them in your church and mention refugees in public prayers so that those souls who care without prejudice may join you.
Volunteer in refugee resettlement organizations to help in the office.
You can also volunteer to help in the office of resettlement organizations. As such, a volunteer would do administrative tasks or the tasks that do not necessarily require you to drive or do something intense. Refugee resettlement organizations are often understaffed, and your help may alleviate their heavy workload. You can be an interpreter if you speak a second language, or you can be their informal advocate and publicize their work. The simplest action is to visit these organizations, sign up for their newsletter, and participate in their fundraising.
Volunteer and advocate publicly for refugee causes.
Refugees are marginalized — they are voiceless. They don’t speak the language, and even when they do, they often don’t know the intricacies of adapting to society, its social norms and values, and its governmental structures. This is true for immigrants, but it is especially true for refugees. That’s where you come in. As a volunteer, your job would be to read and learn about the refugee crisis, find a public space and teach on the crisis, attend and support refugee gatherings or organizations. Write articles explaining refugee-related issues. Humanize them and share their stories to dispel the demon of distortion and dehumanization.
Volunteer to be daily and directly involved in refugees’ lives.
This can be done through refugee resettlement organizations or through the church. If you want to visit refugees, befriend them, invite them to your home, help them open a bank account, take them shopping, explain bank and governmental documents to them, then you’ll become involved in refugees’ daily lives. This takes more time. Involvement at this level requires an openness to build relationships with a refugee and be ready for all the things that daily, normal human relationships bring. You have to be willing to learn about another culture to understand the refugees better so that you can avoid misreading their behavior.
I believe these tips are enough for getting involved in refugees’ lives. Just remember that this work is not glamorous, attention-drawing, or profit-oriented. You will run into opposition. Some refugees will take your work for granted. But don’t let that discourage you because what you do is no more difficult than what Jesus the Refugee did. You are simply helping people carry their cross. Stand against the movements, arguments, and values that would discourage or devalue your work and make you invisible. God sees your work, and that’s what matters.
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