Migration is not a new problem in the world. How could it be, when sin and hope both spring eternal in the human heart, in this valley between Eden and Paradise? There have always been evils to flee; there have always been havens of peace or places of freedom to seek. And for as long as there have been migrants, there have been doors slammed shut, walls erected, opportunities denied, and the ones who suffer the most are the innocent.
I remember the stories I grew up learning in the history books of the Irish immigrants to the US in the 1800s, fleeing unjust British landlords and the blight of the potato famine, who endured the cramped, unsanitary, steerage traveling quarters across the Atlantic at the hands of unscrupulous ship-owners; the dehumanizing ordeal of Ellis Island, running the gauntlet of rules and officials indifferent to human dignity or family unity; and the oppressing poverty and bigoted exclusion offered them in those big American cities that had promised from afar to be places of hope and potential.
Living relatively near the US-Mexico border, I remember the stories I’ve read in the news and heard from friends of the Mexican immigrants smuggled across that invisible boundary from one land to the other, facing heatstroke, thirst, and starvation under the fierce and wild desert sun, leaving loved ones, communities, and everything familiar behind, willing to forego the fullness of the benefits offered only to citizens – the health insurance, welfare, college opportunities, and most well-paying, skilled employment – because even the crumbs that fall from the table are, to them, worth the pain and the risk of the journey.
And now, from the other side of the world, the stories are coming of the refugees from Syria, escaping ISIS with maybe only the clothes on their back, their communities already shattered, their culture and traditions surviving only in the tenuousness of diaspora; the refugees from the civil wars of Africa, escaping terrorists and oppression, longing for the freedom to speak freely, to write freely, to think freely, without fear of death or imprisonment; all of them funneling through that historic sea, small in volume but great in its significance to so many civilizations and individuals, risking their own deaths and the deaths of the people they love most in all the world in the hope of a new home, a new life, a new freedom.
None of these immigrants ever asked for their homelands and communities to be torn apart; none of them desired to be oppressed, beat down, closed off from freedom and opportunity. They are human people, like you and like me, yearning for peace, for the love of family, for the solidarity of community, for the freedom to think and speak and act with authenticity and integrity and without fear, for the opportunity to both embrace our traditions and reach for the future. And their peace has been stolen from them; their families splintered; their communities devastated; their freedoms squeezed and shrunk; their ties with the past shaking like a weak thread; and their futures – if we shut our doors in their faces – destroyed. They risk their lives because the slim hope of a better future in a faraway land is the only thing they have left. The policies that make the journey more dangerous do not turn them away; they simply cause more death along the way.
Are we hypocrites for becoming passionate and incensed about other nations’ response to a refugee crisis on the other side of the world, when we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the cries for justice and hope in our own neighborhoods and on the other side of our border fences? Probably yes. But it is not hypocritical to care about the Syrian refugee crisis and the deaths on the Mediterranean and simply not know how to respond to either that migration crisis or the issues more close to home. It is not hypocritical to weep for the lives lost, the hopes shattered, the dreams destroyed, wherever the loss took place. On the contrary, to scroll past the images of what is happening with a dry eye and a complacent heart may be the signs of a cold and calloused conscience. May God give us the grace to mourn with those who mourn, and begin the labor of redemption and hope with tears and laments for what has already been.
Back in 2013 Pope Francis gave a message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees that is still relevant in light of the escalating immigrant crisis. You can read it in its entirety here, but I particularly love these words of hope near the end:
“Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. They are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community. Migration can offer possibilities for a new evangelization, open vistas for the growth of a new humanity foreshadowed in the paschal mystery: a humanity for which every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.”
Where there is sin, where there is pain, there also is room for God’s grace and healing to come, through His people, to the broken world, for its restoration and redemption.
If you want to know what can be done to help with the Syrian refugee crisis specifically, Ann Voskamp did an excellent job compiling a list of ideas, organizations, and resources here. The pictures she’s compiled there, also, are heart-rending. Maybe if we open our hearts and move past our complacency, we can help make these migrants’ journey one of hope, ending with a better future, instead of the voyage from darkness to darkness that it all too often has become.