“Before the war”, Moussa* explains, “I had hope. I was in a good school, I had my family. Now, every day is bad. Every day is the same. We are just waiting for something to happen”.
We are standing in a tiny upper room in the old quarter of the city. Outside, the autumn air is crisp and tinged with the smell of burning coal as locals struggle to heat their homes ahead of the winter. In here, though, it’s mercifully warm. Moussa and I have found a patch of sunlight and we are cradling tiny glasses of tea as he tells me in broken English and local dialect about his old life in Iraq. He had been in high school in Mosul when the war had come – he had wanted to go on to university and study teaching. But as fighting intensified between local security forces and tribal militias, and, later, with the group calling itself “Islamic State”, Moussa’s family knew they had to go. Hidden in the back of a truck, they crossed borders until they arrived in our city in West Asia, hoping they might return in a month or two. That was four years ago.
Moussa is one of literally millions of people on the move out of Central Asia and the Middle East. Fleeing conflict and persecution, they have escaped by any means necessary and they are searching for new places of refuge. But we’ve learned that life as a refugee is as much about waiting at the pit stops as it is about moving along the highway. Our family recently moved to one such pit stop, in a country which hosts one of the largest single populations of refugees on the planet. Here, refugees must quickly learn the art of waiting. They queue for everything – for registration with the United Nations or the local government, for their weekly check-in with local police, for assistance at aid organisations. They sit before blank-faced civil servants and patiently, haltingly, retell their stories over and over as they make their claims for protection under international law. Moussa’s friend shows me a card for his next meeting with the local government ministry for refugee aid. The earliest appointment available was for mid-2019. “No-one cares”, he says. “You feel you are dead, that you aren’t human anymore”.
This life of despair and hope is nothing new to the people of God. They were brought out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 26:5–8), sat by the rivers in foreign lands and wept for what was lost (Psalm 137) and, later, became known as “exiles” and “sojourners” whose true home is not of this world (1 Peter 1:1, Revelation 21:1–4). Migration and movement, waiting and wandering, is one of the ways God is at work in the world. So a question we often ask ourselves is, “What is our Father doing, even in the misery of these waiting lines?”
Since we arrived four months ago, we have seen several of the tiny local churches reaching out to refugees in welcome and compassion. Working together, they make essential food and clothing available to thousands of families each month. The sheer scale of their need can be overwhelming, and there is always more that could be done – on our distribution days, the line of people winds through the neighbourhood’s narrow streets, often in bitter cold. But we try to treat refugees not as numbers in a system but as people, loved by God and travelling a long and difficult road. We create spaces for them to step out of the lines, to drink tea, to learn new skills, to talk. Some share their stories more deeply, with whispered prayers in Jesus’ name.
Back in that upper room, Moussa drops another cube of sugar into his glass of tea with a faraway look. “We’re just waiting”, he says again. “But what for, I don’t know”. With my limited language, I can’t say much in response. But I am happy to wait with people like Moussa, and as in that perpetual waiting, we hope for new and divine beginnings.
Joel* serves in West Asia.
*Names have been changed.