When I first met a refugee, I was a starry-eyed teenager seeing the beginnings of what later turned out to be the fall of the Soviet Union.
At that time, I did not know that technically speaking there is difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person. A refugee is a person who leaves his country and goes to another one because he is forced to flee away. An internally displaced person (or IDP) is forced to leave his home too, but instead of going somewhere else, he goes to another part of his own nation. These details would matter to me later as I became a lawyer in a nation with a large number of refugees.
But on the day that my parents hosted refugees (or more precisely IDPs) who fled the ethnic war between the Azeris and the Armenians, I saw ordinary humans with no labels entering our home. With teary eyes, voices trembling, summer clothes worn in the chilling winter, a family of five souls entered our nest to stay with us for two or three weeks.
All people who are forced to flee, no matter what the hair-splitting precision of the law calls them, are characterized with several key features: they leave most of their belongings and resources in their homes; they flee to save their lives, the most precious and difficult-to-handle gift God gave them; they are distressed; they lose hope.
Nowadays, I often remember those refugees because the media reminds us that the number of refugees is increasing. I don’t have chance to take in a Syrian refugee family. But I thank God because I have the chance to work with refugees, however indirectly it might be.
If you are a church member and see refugees coming to your city, don’t stay away and let the politics of fear-mongering cloud your judgment. Encourage your church to reach out to these refugees because God’s heart is with them; their presence is a new frontier for the gospel. You can find plenty of verses in the Bible in which God blesses strangers (Abraham in the land of Canaan), immigrants (Joseph in Egypt), and requires the just treatment of them (Ex. 22:21).
To help you in your attempts to reach out to refugees and be hospitable to them like Abraham was to the three strangers, I put together some practical tips. All of these tips come from my experience with refugees and with churches who actively reach out to refugees. These tips assume that you want to teach the Bible to refugees and guide them toward the hope in Christ. These tips also assume that the refugees are in your city and that your church is willing to reach out to them and has established contact. The next phase is to teach them the Bible, strengthen their hope, and lighten their burden.
Help them meet their needs, and stick to your promises.
This is one of the most important tips because they will perceive your scripture and your walking with God in the context of your help to them. I can’t emphasize this enough. As an immigrant myself with a wide variety of experiences, I came to the conclusion that in America, words are mostly devalued and people often say what they don’t mean. It is an accepted practice in the US compared to many other nations, especially people who live in the Middle East, North Africa, or Central Asia.
Refugees usually come with a mindset unprepared for this kind of erosion of the power of words. It does not mean that they mean every single word they say. It simple means that the level of saying one thing and not meaning it at all is a less accepted practice in places where they come from.
In vulnerable situations like those of refugees, people tend to hang on every good word they hear. So if you decide to help them, then make clear how, in what areas of their lives, and for how long you will help them. Then stick to your word. Let your deeds back up your words.
Take it slow. Let their traumas heal, and leave them room to choose whether to invite you into their healing process or not.
Before you jump into teaching the scripture to refugees, take some time and see if you can somehow participate in the healing process. All refugees experience some kind of trauma, however light it might be. Their urgent issue may be how to live with that trauma rather than to learn the scriptures. Yes, the scriptures can heal their traumas, but that should not give you reason to jump immediately into a Bible study. Mishandling a Bible study with a refugee can wreak more harm than healing and may amplify their trauma.
First, see if they are open to talking about God. Then learn what they believe about God, and find valuable insights in their spiritual experiences. One refugee’s understanding of suffering is perhaps worth more than ten theology books blabbering on about the subject. After they are comfortable talking about God or let you know they don’t mind talking about at all, then you can go ahead and bring in your biblical wisdom.
If they don’t invite you in to the healing process, you can still offer your help, but being pushy will negatively affect your outreach.
Prepare yourself for the long journey, and don’t think with the “here and now” mindset.
Patience is critical in reaching out to refugees and teaching the Bible to them. If your purpose is an in-depth Bible teaching while forming deep, lasting relationships, then be ready for a slow developing, bumpy, and long journey. As an American, you may be tempted to get results quickly, to work within a rigid time frame, to apply the “here and now” mindset that encourages instant gratification, but that is your pace, not the refugees’.
Adjust yourself to their working habits, and help them adjust to yours.
Above all, don’t give in to the “here and now” mindset. Probably refugees are driven more by relationships than by outcome. So adjust yourself to that.
Contextualize the biblical lessons, and make it practical to them.
Contextualizing means teaching the sacred text to refugees in such a way that you take into account their worldview and pressing concerns. Don’t start with details about the Trinitarian dogma because they would more often than not find the verses about God’s hope more appealing. We all need hope, but refugees need it even more.
Actively seek to understand refugees’ worldview and their values. This will give you clues about how to arrange your Bible study material and what to emphasize. You will also be able to avoid mistakes. For example, if you are going to teach Syrian refugees the Bible, be aware of the gender relations in their society, and respect that. Don’t use the Bible immediately to confront what you think is wrong in their understanding of the sexes because they may not have the necessary background to appreciate the complex nature of relationships between the sexes in the Bible. If anything, the Old Testament understanding of the sexes would be closer to their worldview than to ours.
Find and provide a Bible in their language if there is any.
If you can, find and provide a Bible in their language. Many refugees may not understand the Bible well in English. Moreover, English will not be their native tongue, so the power of the language of the Bible would be lost on them.
The Bible has been translated into many languages, so there is probably a language in which they would prefer to read the Bible. Find out what that is, and then find a Bible in that language. Encourage them to read it, or actually read it with them and discuss the read passages with them. Especially with people who come from cultures in which orality is more prevalent than literacy, discussion is very important. Otherwise, you miss an important channel into their growth in Christ.
Find and connect them to another believer or person from their nation if possible, and encourage them to speak or discuss the Bible together.
Often it is difficult for refugees to socialize with people of the host culture until they get used to its cultural norms. It may add another layer to their distress. To avoid it, see if you can find other people from their culture and connect them. The ideal situation would be to find another Christian person from their culture who practices the faith. If there is no one from their culture to connect them to, then the next best option is to find a person who understands their culture well enough to converse with them.
But do realize that these contacts may not work or may make the situation more complicated, so be careful who you introduce to your friends. Sometimes, refugees themselves can help you with that by giving you the names of other people who are in the same town or city or people they’re looking for. If you have contacts within the church or sources to use for finding the people they prefer, that should be your priority.
7. Involve them in the church if they are attending. If not, find time to spend with them and hang out with them.
If they are willing to attend church, make sure you involve them in church activities at their own pace. Such involvement would help them socialize and open more doors toward their settling down. It would also help them learn the American culture better and adjust faster.
However, if they won’t attend church, then find time to spend with them as a friend in a casual setting. Attend their gatherings if they allow you to do that, or invite them to your home and learn about their past. Refugees will appreciate someone willing to hear about their troubles, sufferings, and joys.
This may seem counterintuitive, but the majority of non-western cultures around the world still emphasize developing in-depth relationships with people and being loyal to friends. Don’t underestimate this by simply thinking that you spent an hour talking about birds or wars and not about the Bible. Those sincere talks about birds will accumulate into larger patterns that may eventually increase their acceptance of Christ.
As you can see, teaching the Bible to refugees involves considering the wider context of what accompanies the teaching process. Pay attention to these details at all times even if you are focusing on the details of cross-cultural interaction or interpretations of the Bible. Remember that in the long run the larger context that refugees live in may trump the details of reading the Bible cross-culturally.
This may happen because refugees slowly adopt to the host culture (and its preferences of reading the scriptures) and because the larger context dictates how people perceive the text-related details of cross-cultural interpretations.