At a time in history in which an unprecedented 65,5 million people around the world have been forced from home, we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. Among them are nearly 22,5 million refugees, over half of which are under the age of 18.
World Refugee Day, held each year on 20 June, commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of men, women and children who are on the move, in search of protection and opportunity.
Pope Francis has done so again and again, both in words and in action, as he has appealed to governments and policy-makers to heed the Christian message of welcome as well as dedicating many personal moments of encounter and prayer to refugees and forced migrants in different situations.
Also marking the occasion is the Jesuit Refugee Service with its message to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. In an effort to make its message even stronger and more effective, this year it has done so joining forces with other faith-based organisations and released an ecumenical statement entitled “Refugees: an opportunity to grow together.”
Jesuit Father Aloysius Mowe, International Director of Advocacy and Communications for JRS, describes the current populist trends we are seeing across the world that lead to the closure of borders, the building of walls and the tendency to turn away ‘strangers’ as a product of fear and anxiety, and says that as Christians we have a responsibility to spread a culture of solidarity and welcome.
“Fear is a very natural phenomenon: we fear things that can harm us” he said.
Fear, Father Aloysius continued, generates an anxiety that can stem from the unknown. And he pointed out that migration issues – which are certainly not pertinent only to Europe but are a reality in Asia-Pacific, in Africa and the Middle East – often give way to discussions and prejudice about numbers and a possible clash of cultures which are contrary to the message we (the JRS) want to express.
“The New Testament keeps on saying to us over and over: ‘do not be afraid’. And as Christians we need to take that seriously and reflect on it” he said.
Father Aloysius recalled numerous episodes in the Gospels that highlight the centrality of this message and said that “at the heart of the Gospel is proclaimed a God that says we should not be afraid, we should not let fear control our actions, we should not let fear control our relationships.”
“If we take that message to heart I think we can really begin to look at the people who come to our borders, the people who arrive on our shores asking for solidarity and assistance, and instead of fear taking control of our actions and reactions, we might actually look at them and ask ourselves: ‘how can I be a sister or a brother to them, without being fearful of the demands made on me? That’s the crux of the issue – it’s about fearing that what we have is going to be taken away, as if what we have is an entitlement” he said.
He recalled that Pope Francis himself has often recalled his own migrant heritage as he comes from a family that migrated from Italy to Argentina. He has also commented on the fact – Father Aloysius said – that his family too could have become one of those “who never succeeded.”
By recalling this fact, he noted, the Pope is in fact acknowledging that his fortunes, by and large, depended on the generosity and on the welcome given by others.
“What if each one of us could say to ourselves ‘what if I were in that situation? What would I want for myself and for my loved ones?’” he said.
Regarding the joint ecumenical statement ‘Refugees: An opportunity to grow together’ released by JRS with other Christians organisations, Father Aloysius said its underlying message is that of solidarity.
Noting that Pope Francis has become the acknowledged world leader on issues of migration and refugees, he recalls a recent talk in which Francis said “when we talk about migration we have to start using verbs of action: welcome, protect, promote and integrate – verbs that require a subject”.
“So, we have to say ‘we welcome’, ‘I protect’. ‘I promote’, we integrate’ – we have to take hold of this” he said.
And this is imperative, he continued, because every one of us has an existence that is tied to the existence of someone else: no man is an island, there is no such thing as ‘a self-made-man’ because every accomplishment we may achieve everything we do or have, is dependent on what someone else has done before us. This, he said, is part of the fundamental solidarity of being human, which is even stronger for us Christians.
“Because Jesus is present, God is present in every single human person – you cannot go to church on Sunday and say that you worship a man who was homeless and died on the cross, and come out of church and ignore a homeless man sitting in the street. Jesus would say to us: we are the same man” he said.
Father Aloysius said that the message JRS wants to emphasize this World Refugee Day is that we are all connected to each other and our faith implies a fundamental solidarity in being human.
“If we call ourselves Christians it is not an optional extra, it is at the very heart of who we are as Christians” he said.
He said that a day such as World Refugee Day is significant in helping us look beyond the headlines we see in the news every day because “beyond the headlines there is the reality of real people” – not just numbers – real people who “at this very moment are in cities, in border situations, in camps where they have been perhaps for many years – and that they are people who are not different from you or from me”.
Father Aloysius reflected on the sheer numbers released by organisations such as the UN that speaks of over 21 million refugees in 2015 of whom at least half of them are children and says that the statistics are such that they are almost too massive to take in.
He emphasised the fact that over half of those numbers refer to minors, many of them unaccompanied: “if you are a parent, or a sibling, or if you are a grandparent and you look at the children around you think of them as being homeless, at risk, hungry, without access to education, maybe you can begin to go beyond the headlines”.
“World Refugee Day is saying take a pause: let’s go beyond the headlines, and realise the enormity of what is going on and the fact that the world can actually do something about this” he said.
“This is not an intractable problem, Father Aloysius concludes, this is really an opportunity for us to share what we have and for us to be more strategic in terms of how we welcome those who are displaced.”
Source: Vatican Radio