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.
And adding to our fear is the additional burden of compassion fatigue. Never before in human history have we been so inundated with reports and images of atrocities happening across the globe. Trying to process them all takes an emotional and psychological toll. To sustain our sympathies, we seem to be relying on short-term compassion injections ripped from the daily headlines. The problem is, these injections come in many forms. Sometimes they reawaken genuine compassion, but on other occasions they simply reinforce the existing fear and instinct for self-protection.
When the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed-up on the shores of Turkey, Christians in the United States woke up in a big way. When a photographer captured the now-famous image of this little boy, our consciences roared. Vickie Reddy, executive producer for The Justice Conference, likened this event to an earthquake shaking up the Body of Christ and rousing us to action. But that was August of 2015. And like a caffeine or a sugar high, we soon crashed.
The Paris bombings were a significant factor in the crash, in that they brought fear surging back to the surface. We allowed ourselves to associate the act of welcoming refugees with the risk of opening a passageway to terrorists. And this unfounded fear has now reared its head to an unprecedented degree with the new effort to ban refugees and even visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Reddy—along with Ann Voskamp, Richard Stearns of World Vision, Gabe Lyons of Q Ideas, and others—has been leading a multi-organization initiative called We Welcome Refugees, an effort that began after Kurdi’s body washed-up on shore. She is convinced that we need to understand that refugees aren’t coming our way because they long for the American dream. What they long for, instead, is home. In their home country. But home is gone. And to remain at home is certain death.
On the podcast Chasing Justice, Reddy explains that the fear of terrorists infiltrating our refugee resettlement programs is grossly unfounded. This doesn’t mean naively ignoring the threat of ISIS and its very real ambitions to export terror abroad. But it does mean acknowledging that entering the United States as a refugee is “one of the most difficult ways to get into this country,” because of the intensive 18-plus month vetting process that every refugee undergoes. “There are far easier ways to get into the country. And so if you’re ISIS, you’re not going to try to come into the [United States] as a refugee because the chance of you being able to do that is so remote.”
Hungry for Action
For anyone longing to take action aiding the millions who are fleeing war and oppression, but who simply have not figured out how to make it a priority, Kingsley’s book is the perfect companion.
Kingsley helpfully sets the bigger-picture context for the crisis—the catalysts of war and government oppression, the numbers of migrants year by year and country by country since 2011 as the exodus from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa has grown. His maps show the exodus routes and how they have shifted like sub-Saharan sands or Mediterranean tides as receiving governments change their approach to the crisis time and time again. And yet, Kingsley seems to know that all the statistical and historical context in the world will only go so far in arousing sympathy for refugees.
When I first opened the book, I could hardly wrap my head around the maps of migrant routes. It literally felt like reading a foreign language. And yet, to my astonishment, by the time I had finished the book, when I turned back to look at these maps again, they suddenly became crystal clear. I had a sharper understanding of each of the countries and the reasons the refugees had wanted to escape them. I understood why they were fleeing to one set of countries in certain years and another set of countries in other years. So much had become clear that I was hungry to know more—and, most of all, to act.
Kingsley is a journalist. He largely describes rather than prescribes, and where he does prescribe, his intended audience is mainly governments (he urges them to honor the terms of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention). And yet, I still closed the book with a renewed sense of urgency. The New Odyssey takes us deep into a world of dizzying, paralyzing statistics, brings them alive with gripping storytelling, and then leaves us not with a list of action items but instead with something infinitely more valuable: a deeply informed, convicted compassion that, when received by a follower of Jesus and cultivated by the Holy Spirit, has the potential to flower into real love of neighbor, here and now. Love that overrides all fear. Love that welcomes refugees.
Bethany Hoang serves as an advisor and speaker on matters of biblical justice for International Justice Mission and other organizations. She is co-author, with Kristen Deede Johnson, of The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos).