The God at the end of the line

“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.

Nurture and hospitality

In the 20 or so years we served overseas with Interserve, our family lived in three different countries. Each move involved planning, and adjustment to the new location, language, visa requirements and work roles.

This is nothing compared with what we’ve seen as we’ve worked with refugees in Australia over the past 10 years. As the voluntary coordinators to welcome and assist refugees from Burma to our church in Wollongong, we at first had very little idea what it might involve, but we understood their experiences had been extremely traumatic.

Our church already had a solid history of welcoming people from other nations. What started for us in 2007 as a group of three men from Burma’s Chin state has now grown into about 80 adults and 50 children, mostly from Kayah and Kayin states. Many had spent more than 20 years in refugee camps in Thailand, and many were Christians. They attend English-language services as well as their own-language services.

Take Bu*, who was born in a camp in Thailand and spent 15 years with his family there, waiting for re-location to a third country. No phone, no electricity, very few educational opportunities, and only basic healthcare. And for his parents, no way to do meaningful work.

Or Mami*. She and her 6-year-old daughter were transported out of Burma on a small boat, then by car, and on the way lost money given by poor relatives. Eventually, they were re-united with her husband who was eking out a living in Malaysia while waiting for United Nations permission to move to a final destination. That turned out to be Australia! But the stress still shows on her face.

Refugees in Australia are often struck by the relative peace, safety and order they see here, but some continue to move – they long to join relatives in different Australian cities, move interstate for work, or are forced to move when their rent is increased.

How on earth could we come alongside people with stories like these, and stand with them in appropriate ways? Even though we knew something about being foreigners and strangers, we were beginners in working with displaced people.

From the outset, we realised that it was important to raise awareness and to encourage our congregation members and new arrivals to get to know each other better. Because some NGOs in our area already assist re-settlers in material ways, we focussed on spiritual nurture and hospitality. Three of the easy English Bible studies we set up are still running after more than eight years. We also tried to involve the children and teenagers with our Sunday school and youth groups to keep the second generation engaged.

On the hospitality front, we’ve encouraged the Aussie congregation members to visit re-settlers and invite them to their homes to encourage friendships to develop. A list of tips helps the Aussies interact across cultures.

And what have we learned?

That ‘integration’ is a two-way street and both groups need to work at it, even when they are nervous at first. Much, but not all, of this is based on language issues.

That enlisting a small team is important. Aussie church members have helped in leading Bible studies, hospitality, form-filling, transport, furniture removal, and more.

God has graciously given work to increasing numbers of our friends, and they now have well-established networks of their own. Our greatest joy has been to see our friends grow in their knowledge of the Lord, spouses and other family members re-united after years of separation, and to attend Burmese weddings. Already they are making a very positive contribution to our church fellowship, and to our city.

Andrew and Muriel are CultureConnect team members.
*Names have been changed.

Seeking community: the church and the refugee

“I’m not in a good situation right now.”

Daryush stares at the floor of the church hall with glazed eyes, cup in hand (two teabags, four sugars). The words slowly spill out in broken English. He had just spent the last of that fortnight’s money on antibiotics when his caseworker called. “They move me again. I have to be ready tomorrow morning. He not explain why.” Moving means leaving his only near-culture friend and finding his way in yet another neighbourhood – his fourth since arriving in Australia three years ago. Then came an email from his family in his home country. Daryush’s parents, who are strict in their faith, know he has become a believer and want nothing more to do with him. He blinks back tears. I ask what he will do now. The cup quivers. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

*

We still haven’t become used to the weight of stories like these, a common part of our work with asylum seekers, refugees and new migrants in Sydney’s northwest. Of course, there are the stories of cruelty and oppression we expect for asylum seekers – of torture, arrest, police brutality, religious hatred. There is the constant heartache of those who have left everything and everyone to make that perilous journey to seek safety in Australia. We expect to hear that much. What we weren’t prepared for were the ways these stories continue within our own borders.

It wasn’t so long ago that our Prime Minister launched his policy of deterrence of so-called ‘illegal’ attempts at asylum with these words: “This is our country. We determine who comes here, and the circumstances in which they come.” Since then, we’ve learned what that word ‘we’ – that tiny, yet powerful word – can mean for asylum seekers, and what it betrays about Australia’s sentiments. ‘We’ decides who comes here. ‘We’ are not obliged to assess ‘you’, accommodate ‘you’, or tolerate ‘you’. When asylum seekers, refugees and others from across the seas are so framed, the gap between settled Aussies and these unsettled others begins to widen.

For friends of ours like Daryush, that gap is only getting wider. After years in a detention centre, he was released and given permission to live ‘in community’; two years later, though, I remain his only Australian friend. When I express my surprise at this, he tells me story after story of trying to strike up conversations on trains, at the shops, or waiting for the bus. “Nobody talks to me.” He laughs. “Maybe because I’m brown. Maybe they think I’m a terrorist.” For Daryush, and for thousands more, this is the distressing irony of life ‘in community’. Surrounded by Australians, there is no-one to welcome him home, no-one to talk to over a cup of chai, no-one to show him the best picnic spots, no-one to listen. Instead, unable to meaningfully structure his days, he spends most of his time alone, thinking of a family far away and waiting, perhaps, for the phone to ring.

The church of God stands ready to resist this gap between ‘we’ and ‘you’. We ourselves live in a community carved out by the unrelenting beat of God’s heart for the unworthy; while “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), God saw fit to pursue us and to give us new life at the cost of His dear Son. ‘We’, like the refugee, could contribute little, but stood to gain so much through that love and the love of His people. And, so loved and transformed, we are now able to love and include others in the same way – not plagued by anxiety about our resources or our national security or even our awkward post-church morning-tea conversations. Instead, we are to be haunted by the stories of our spiritual ancestors (themselves a displaced people – Deut 10:18–19), by our Lord’s words of welcome for all who bear His image (Matt 25:35–40).

In our corner of this city, we’re having a crack at being this kind of welcoming church community for the asylum seekers and new migrants among us. At times, it means providing bags of groceries, mobile phone credit and other essentials, but we’ve been most surprised and encouraged by what happens when we gather around the dinner table. In this, the ministry of the roast chook and prefab pavlova, the refugee and the student can mingle with locals, and friendship and trust begins. We’ve laughed, we’ve shared, we’ve learnt new things. Occasionally, we’ve cried. Almost always, we’ve planned to meet again. And through these meals, we’ve seen people from far-off lands draw closer to the One who Himself became a refugee, if only for a little time (Matt 2:13–14).

It’s not always easy, and we are never far away from rehearsing those same tired divisions between ‘we’ and ‘you.’ But we are convinced that our commitment to both ‘word’ and ‘deed’ cannot be delegated to an NGO or a faraway mission agency. Our church – and yours – has a rich opportunity to invite refugees and new migrants into our community. Why not have a go?

*

Steam fogs the windows as we open the crockpots and serve up. Daryush, along with four other asylum seekers and two international students, has joined us to mark Persian New Year. There is red wine, kebabs, and even our feeble attempt at Persian rice. Many hours of comparing cultures and faiths follows. Daryush is quiet – this is meant to be a time when the pain of the old year is forgotten, though there is little chance of that when no-one knows what might happen to him tomorrow, or the day after. But, as he leaves that evening (leftovers in hand), he smiles and embraces me. “Thank-you”, he whispers. “Thanks, God, for you, my family.”

If you would like to know more about how you and your church can connect with asylum seekers, refugees or new migrants in your area, contact CultureConnect via cultureconnect.isa@gmail.com

The authors are Interserve Partners, serving in Australia with CultureConnect.