The massive statistics describing the refugee crisis of our era are staggering. In Syria alone, nearly 14 million people have been displaced from their homes, including nearly 5 million fleeing to other nations. The numbers beg not only to be heard, but also dissected and understood. And yet, in their magnitude, they are so very easy to ignore.
But when massive numbers turn into individual faces and when those faces take on names, sometimes we begin to pay closer attention. And, every now and then, we begin to consider how we ourselves might be implicated.
This is the gift that Patrick Kingsley offers us in his remarkable book, The New Odyssey: The Story of the 21st-Century Refugee Crisis. Kingsley, a reporter for the Guardian, visited 17 different nations connected to the current refugee crisis, drawing as close as possible to the lives of those fleeing unimaginable terror. He penetrated the underworld that refugees use to get to safer shores, witnessing the fetid holding pens and decrepit camps where they are detained for months on end. He joined rescue missions of migrant boats overloaded to the verge of capsizing on the Mediterranean. He handed out water to families scrambling up rocky cliffs from the Aegean Sea into Greece. He walked for days alongside refugees fleeing through the Balkans in their desperate attempts to gain asylum in Europe. He made contact, in the dark shadows of the night, with nefarious smugglers who profit from the refugees’ plight. He even went so far as to follow one refugee's harrowing journey from North Africa to Sweden, capturing the incredibly complex reality of the refugee's struggle in a way that is both deeply personal and remarkably thorough.
What becomes arrestingly clear through Kingsley’s work is this: Refugees flee their homes and risk their lives because they are convinced that, without the resurrection of asylum in a new country, they are already dead. They have already lost everything, and no degree of horrific, dignity-stripping treatment by smugglers—not even death by drowning or suffocation—could be worse than what they have already endured at home. Refugees are not naive. They are not ill-informed about the journey they face. In the age of social media, they are targeted with all manner of false advertising by smugglers promising cruise ships. Yet they know, from story after story of lives lost and family members disappeared, that something hellish lies ahead. And still they press on.
Compassion and Fear
Kingsley’s accounts pay little attention to the role of faith in this crisis, whether that of those fleeing violence and war or those seeking to help them. Nevertheless, his book is a gift for Christians living in countries like America, where, even in the midst of brash efforts to shut down access, we have a choice between raising our voices and opening our arms to refugees and fighting to keep them away.
As Christians in the United States, our response to the refugee crisis often vacillates between compassion and fear. Of course, those who act with compassion often do so despite their own fear. And yet, on the whole, there is very little movement toward love for refugees. Fear appears to be the dominant impulse, not least among followers of Jesus.