Who is my neighbour during the pandemic?

by Brian Dyck

On March 15, Prime Minister Trudeau strongly urged Canadians outside of the country to get back to Canada as soon as possible. I received this news on a Sunday morning while sitting in the guesthouse at the Meserete Kristos College in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, where Lynell Bergen, my wife had been teaching since January. That day we worked at changing our flight to return home later that week–six days earlier than planned.

As our departure date approached, things in Ethiopia began to become a bit more tense. Monday, the Ethiopian government closed the schools. Wednesday, the first case of COVID-19 in Ethiopia was diagnosed. Flights in and out of the country continued but they were full going out and nearly empty coming in. The streets of the capital city, Addis Ababa, seemed a little less crowded and we began to see a few people wearing masks and gloves.

In the end, our trip back to Canada was uneventful. We returned home to a Winnipeg that was very different than the place we had left three months earlier–a world we now are trying to navigate along with the rest of Canada with restrictions and uncertainty.

A central pillar of the response to the COVID-19 global public health emergency has been restricting movement of people to limit the spread of this highly contagious disease. Air travel today is a small fraction of what it was three months ago.

September 5, 2019. The International Organization for Migration facilitates the transportation for nearly all resettled refugees in the world. Often the blue and white plastic bag they are given at the airport as they leave stays with them as a reminder of their life-changing journey. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

Canadian immigration has changed drastically as well. Just a few days after we arrived back in Canada, the last resettled refugees arrived in Canada for the foreseeable future. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Canadian immigration offices globally have all curtailed their activities. Canadian travel restrictions allowed me to come back into the country because I am a citizen but refugees including the ones sponsored through MCC are not able to travel. Right now, there are about 7,500 refugees around the world who have been approved to resettle in Canada but cannot move. Indeed, there are almost no refugees travelling to resettle anywhere in the world.

There are still a few people coming to international borders in places like Europe, the US and Canada, to claim asylum, but the ability of states to process their claim is severely limited in some places and just not happening in others. In Canada, except for a few minor exceptions, the government has gone so far as sending asylum seekers who cross into Canada by land from the US back.

When we feel threatened, it is common for us to think about putting up barriers. However, it is important to keep in mind a few things about the current threat and our response. First, this virus does not check a passport before it infects someone. By the time states closed their borders to non-citizens, it was too late, the virus was already in the country. Closing the border might buy some time, but it will not solve the problem.

This pandemic is something that will need to be solved globally or COVID-19 will continue to flair up again where it seems to have been eradicated. What we should learn from this situation is that we are not safe unless the most vulnerable are safe.

Second, while the virus can be contracted by anyone, we know that it impacts the elderly and people with weaker immune systems more severely. It is important to be especially careful around people who would fall under these categories, including those who are refugees and displaced people. Often living in tight quarters and lacking good food options, basic hygiene facilities and access to proper health care, refugees and displaced people are even more vulnerable during this pandemic.

January 4, 2020. At the end of the vacation part of my time in Ethiopia, I boarded a plane in Lalibela to return to Addis Ababa to start my alternative assignment with MCC studying the displacement context of the region. Little did I know then that a few months later, the process of travel would become nearly impossible as borders closed and airlines drastically cut their operations because of lack of demand. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

This has made all of us think a lot about our communities and our neighbours. A few weeks ago, as I was finishing a morning run, I saw my neighbour standing on her porch as she often does in the mornings. She said she was about to go to work and she confessed she was a bit worried.

Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is a nurse and when I was talking with her that morning, I offered her words of encouragement and told her we really need her.

“Who is my neighbour?” is a question that Jesus was asked (Luke 10:25-37). The legal scholar asking the question seemed to want to limit the definition of neighbour, however, Jesus tells a story that not only expands the definition of neighbour but takes it in a very difficult direction for his questioner and us.

The familiar story of the Samaritan who helped the man who had been robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho is a story of someone reaching across a cultural boundary which was unthinkable to breach in the time of Jesus. In the story, the victimized traveller’s own people would not help because he was considered ritually unclean. In their minds he could “infect” them with ritual impurity. The Samaritan in the story does not worry about this. He, the lawyer agrees, is the neighbour of this man.

In 2018, Nyadieng Gach Gatkouth, 21, and her one-year-old daughter Nyamal Deng Lam in the Jewi Refugee Camp, located in Gambella along the Ethiopia/South Sudan border. (MCC photo/Brian Dyck)

It is more difficult these days to reach out to our neighbours. We need to be creative about how we show we care for each other in these days where we must keep our distance. I think we have all seen a lot of heartwarming examples of that.

It is also difficult for us to show we care for the neighbours that Jesus’ parable points to: those who are across the border from us but are in dire need. Those who have little access to the protections we have like soap and water, being able to keep our distance from others, and access to health care when needed. It will be important for us to not forget those neighbours. While travel is restricted and borders are closed to foreigners, there are things we can do like support the communities where there are vulnerable people. MCC partners and workers do that on our behalf and they can benefit from our prayers and our support.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Take action: Send a letter here to the Canadian government for the recent funding commitments for humanitarian assistance and voice your support for continued bold commitments to local organizations engaging in peacebuilding with people on the move.

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