This is the second part in a series of entries I’m writing based on my thoughts on the book “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir. The first entry in the series can be found here.
In my first entry in this series, I talked about how being able to put an actual human face on the current refugee crisis helps us to see the actual people involved and not just an issue or a political football. I mentioned a few different refugee stories in hopes that we could at least see something we can each identify with. Now I’m going to ask you to do something a little more direct.
One of the first great lessons I learned from literature was about empathy. Many of us learned this great lesson from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Consider the wisdom of Atticus:
First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Now apparently Atticus became some kind of raging racist in the “sequel” that may or may not have ever been intended to be released. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. Even that doesn’t lessen the power of these words from the first novel though. “Walking around in somebody’s skin” might seem a bit more, uh, morbid than “Walking in someone else’s shoes,” but the point remains. How we can ever hope to treat another person fairly if we can’t even START to see things from their perspective?
As a matter of fact, many times in the Old Testament YHWH gives the nation of Israel similar advice. Exodus 22:21 states: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (NIV). I quoted a similar verse from Leviticus in the first entry of this series. The message is clear, as the Israelites are now going about forming their own national and religious identity and establishing a land of their own, they are not to oppress foreigners, strangers, or sojourners (depending which translation you favor). Why? Because they HAD walked a mile in the shoes of a foreigner, which is what they were in Egypt.
So how do we even begin to apply this empathy in today’s refugee crisis? I almost didn’t even write this entry because the idea seemed so absurd to me as to border on offensive. I’m sitting here in a very well off area in the richest country ever to grace the face of the earth, typing on a laptop computer, listening to music on a speaker that I can just TALK TO and get to play pretty much any song I want, with my smartphone and my tablet right next to me, full of all the food and drink I can get, with a hockey game on mute on a big TV in front of me, and the only even MINOR discomfort in my life being the allergies that give me a sinus headache. Tomorrow I’ll go to my full time job and sit at a desk in an air conditioned building and make a lot more money than most people in the world do in a week by doing FAR less strenuous work. And I’ll probably complain because I’d rather spend the day reading and drinking coffee!
How can I, or how can anyone at least as privileged as I am, even begin to imagine life as a refugee? I had to start somewhere, so I started with: What if all those things were gone? The TV, the computer, the smartphone, the tablet, the Amazon Echo, the abundance of food at my fingertips, the comfy job….what if I lost all that? Well, if I lost all that I’d still be a damn sight better off than most people in the world.
What if I lost my home?
What if I lost my right to worship as I see fit?
What if my holding on to my faith meant I had to go underground to survive?
What if people were actively looking to kill me or my family because of religion, politics, or even ethnicity?
Well, my guess is I wouldn’t be really worried about not being able to get Alexa to play my favorite playlists anymore.
So if I had to flee with my family, where would I go? Well, we have a cabin in a nearby mountain range. I’d probably try there first. I’d have my shelter taken care of. I’m a former scout that spent many summers there. I could carve out a life at least for a bit. There’s food sources and water.
But what if I had to flee from there? What if I had to leave my state or even my country in such a hurry that all I had was the clothes on my back and what I could carry in a bag? Where would I go? Let’s assume I can’t fly anywhere and have no car. Maybe I’d make a break for Canada, eh? Their culture is very similar to ours, there would be no language barrier, the climate would be more like what I’m used to.
But what if I couldn’t get to Canada? What if we had to flee and none of us could get to Canada? What if our only option was to head south to Mexico? Given our President’s caustic remarks on Mexico and our country’s rather toxic views on immigration from Mexico, how do you think we’d be treated if that shoe were on the other foot? Hopefully they’d be nicer to us than many of us have been to them, but are you willing to bet your life and the life of your family on that?
Let’s say we actually make it to Mexico and manage to get across the border. I mean hey, if we build Mr. Trump’s wall that would be no small task! But let’s say we get across the Great Orange Hedgerow and make it into Mexico. I speak some Spanish, probably enough to communicate my basic needs and get the gist of conversation around me, but let’s face it, many places in the USA have become so hostile to any kind of multiculturalism that not speaking another language isn’t viewed as a weakness, but as something to be proud of! Imagine your average Trump twitter troll having to exist in Mexico!
Did I mention that you had to give up your precious guns when you cross the border? That’s right, you’re on their turf and you play by their rules. Did I mention that you probably had to sell anything of intrinsic value that you had left just to get food and water for the journey? Did I mention that your one set of clothes has become filthy and ragged from walking hundreds of miles? Did I mention that you haven’t seen a shower in weeks, let alone a laundromat?
Your feet are killing you.
Your kids can’t walk the distances that you can, so you either have to stop all the time, imperiling yourself as you flee, or carry them.
Your back hurts too.
Your one pair of shoes is shot. The busted blister on your foot is probably infected.
And some guard with a really big gun urges you into the American refugee camp in a not very calm or patient demeanor. Even if you speak a little Spanish, he speaks way too quickly for you to understand.
That’s right, a camp, such as the one pictured above. The book “Seeking Refuge” points out that the vast majority of refugees have no real valid chance to be resettled into a third country. Most of the world’s refugees have to stay right there in that camp….sometimes for YEARS.
Could you do that? Would you go nuts? You and your family get to live a tent with multiple other families. You have to share the space. You have to share the same bathroom facilities, you have to share the small amount of food and resources that are provided by relief organizations. Maybe even some of the same organizations that you’ve slagged on for being “a bunch of bleeding heart liberals” who “just want to give people shit for sitting on their asses.”
Oh and by the way, let’s say you don’t trust one of the guys living in the tent with your family. Maybe you see him staring at your young daughter a little too much. Maybe she comes to you and tells you he tried to force himself on her. You go to the “authorities” and maybe they tell you that they’ll look into it after they resolve other complaints. Maybe they tell you they’ll take the guy to another tent if you pay them money you don’t have. Maybe they’ll just laugh at you.
Then the ultimate indignity. Maybe you’re sitting with a group of people around one of the few radios in the camp listening to the news. You know enough Spanish by now that you can at least surmise that they’re talking about refugees…about you. Then someone else in the group translates and says that the people in that country think that you’re a threat to their security and need to be removed. Maybe things are getting bad there now too and they don’t want any more of their resources being squandered by people just sitting there being lazy, and who don’t even speak the language!
Could you take that? Could handle going from your sweet, cushy American life to a refugee camp that might border on squalor?
Could you handle having everything that makes you “you” stripped away from you and sold to the highest bidder?
Could you put up with the total loss of your agency, the loss of all power to affect ANYTHING going on around you?
I’m not sure I could. Be honest with yourself. Could you? That’s why I shifted from “me,” to “we,” to “you” throughout this little exercise. I wanted you to have at least a chance to come to grips with those same stark thoughts that I did.
Maybe you say that it could never happen here.
Are you sure about that?
Maybe you really should consider walking a mile in their shoes before making another crack about refugees or lazy immigrants.
Editorial Note: In no way do I want to make people think that this scenario above is how people in Mexico might treat hypothetical refugees. In fact, I spent parts of two summers doing practical missions work in Mexico, and everyone I ran into was full of love and hospitality, no matter how “gringo” I was, and spoiler alert, I was very “gringo.” I was just inserting examples of some of the concerns that refugees face in the country to which they flee, a country that often does not let them work, has major cultural differences, and sometimes cares very little about their security. I was also trying to make the reader think of what it might be like if other people talked about us the way we often talk about them.