The people behind the headlines — opening our hearts to refugees

By Rebekah Sears

We see it on the news almost every day – headlines of migration from around the world. We can become easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the numbers; the millions of people on the move, in refugee camps, uprooted from their homes. But what about the people behind these headlines – their stories? In light of the growing global crisis of forced migration, it is critical to keep telling the stories and opening our hearts to the human side of migration.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and all across the country this week people are marching, standing with refugees who have come to Canada and expressing solidarity with those around the world who are seeking refuge. We think of those risking their lives in precarious boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal; those making the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico; the hundreds of thousands who have fled or are still fleeing violence in Burundi and Rwanda, Syria and Lebanon, and now living in refugee camps all over the world. All of these people long for peace and a better life for their children.

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)
MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.  (MCC Photo by Salar Ahmed)

A recent report by Amnesty International lines up with what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has already said: with more than 50 million people around the world who have been forcefully displaced, either in their own country or beyond their borders, this is the worst forced migration crisis our world has seen since World War II.

Earlier this month Stephen Cornish, Director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders Canada, challenged Canadians to recognize our shared humanity with those fleeing or living in refugee camps. We must also recognize our responsibility for opening our doors and our hearts with those those needing safety and protection.

In thinking about the concept of shared humanity, one passage of scripture stands out. A lesson from the very beginning, Genesis 1: all people are made in the image of God – the call and challenge for us all to look at others from God’s viewpoint. We support and respect each other, mourn together, but also are joyful together.

This also reminds me of a recent personal encounter with migration.

Last month Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC) hosted the “People on the Move” exhibit, which is an MCC resource created with the help of partners around the world to tell stories of migration. It tells personal stories of refugees, people who have been displaced, or people who have had to move, seeking new opportunities. Along with the display, OMC invited many of their sponsored refugee families, as well as members of the congregation who have been involved in the sponsorship process to share their stories.

Among the panelists were people from Somalia, Iraq, Colombia, Syria and Canada, along with people in the audience who had come from Sudan, DR Congo and other parts of the world. It was a wonderful and impactful time of sharing and showing support for one another. There are so many highlights to share, but I will focus on two.

The Abukhousa family — Palestinians from Iraq — arrived as refugees in Altona, Manitoba in 2010. They were sponsored by an Altona group called Build a Village. (MCC Photo by Joanie Peters)

Laila (not her real name) is a young mother who arrived from Iraq last year with her husband and daughters. She spoke only a few words, but had a powerful message.  As a Muslim family, Laila and her husband were so joyful that a church community wanted to sponsor them, walk alongside them in this difficult time of transition, and build relationships, despite cultural, language and religious divides. The friendship between Laila’s family and several families from OMC was clearly evident. I don’t recall Laila’s exact words, but will paraphrase to the best of my ability, “We are people, just like you, who desire peace. We have hopes and dreams for our family.”

Angelica (also not her real name) and her family arrived from Colombia as refugees fleeing violence when she was just 12 years old in 2003. She shared about the difficult transition: the loss of her home, the challenges of a new language and culture, the end of a future in Colombia. But she also shared about the joys of community and support in Ottawa. One memory stuck out for Angelica on the day she arrived in Canada, a memory that is still vivid and still brings tears to her eyes. When she and her family descended the escalator at the Ottawa airport, a crowd of people awaited them, excited to meet them, greeting them with open arms. These were people who had never met her, yet their love and support was clear. Angelica has since become involved with other arriving refugee families, particularly another family from Colombia, because she wants to show them the same love and support which she received.

This year let us stand in solidarity with refugees here and around the world. Let us open our hearts to them. Let us seek to recognize our common humanity.

By Rebekah (Bekah) Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

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