If I stumbled across the name “Alan Kurdi” it would not ring a bell whatsoever. I have little doubt however, that if I started talking about the refugee boy whose body was tragically found washed up on a beach, you would recall the photo that grabbed the attention of the whole world a couple of years ago. As heartbreaking it was at the time to see such a devastating image, I have to admit that it still felt distant from me personally. While the media had my attention for a season surrounding the tragic death of three year old Alan Kurdi, I never took any action in response to the migrant crisis, apart from nodding my head and agreeing that something had to be done. Maybe it was because I hadn’t met any refugees in person. Maybe it was because it seemed too big of an issue for me to have any part in it. Whatever the case, refugees were slipping further and further from my mind, when last year I had the great privilege of chatting with Lisa Wood.
Lisa serves with Athletes in Action (AIA) . AIA is an international ministry focused on discipling athletes on university campuses, helping student-athletes see there is more to life than sporting victories. They raise Christ-centred labourers for life-long ministry to share the hope and purpose found only in Jesus.
Alongside this fantastic ministry, Lisa and her family have had opportunities to minister to refugees in their neighbourhood community through genuine friendships and volunteering in church programmes. Lisa has not only provided great insight into the realities refugees face and encouraging examples of how we can love them, but also reminded me why I should have the heart to love in the first place.
- What do refugees experience once they arrive?
Firstly, they carry a sense of uncertainty regarding the security of their future, not only while their visa application is reviewed but even after it has been approved. Their first desire is to know, ‘Am I secure? Am I ok? Can I stay here and start building a new life? Can I start putting roots down?’”
Another aspect of the initial experience is the challenge of finding a job so they can provide for their families, which comes hand in hand with the task of learning a new language. Many take language courses and work very hard to learn the language. This can be very demanding as the difficulty of picking up a new language is coupled with the pressure of finding work. However according to Lisa, what is perhaps the most challenging is the experience of loneliness. Understandably, moving to a new country with an entirely different culture and language can be very lonely. Having shared similar experiences, this is partly what motivates Lisa to proactively befriend refugees.
“If you’ve lived somewhere else before, you know what it’s like […] I think it’s very important for me to remember that when I moved to another country as a foreigner, it took a long time for me to make friends. It took a long time for me to work out what the culture’s like and so when you can have someone who is an insider, or who can show that understanding, show warmth and accept you just as you are even though you have down days and good days and scary days, people are there for you and love you, I think that is huge.”
2. Why should we care?
What motivates Lisa and her family the most however, is the Bible’s instructions to love others and Jesus’ own example of loving others.
“The Bible talks about caring for orphans and widows, and often that’s the case for people who come here. They, in a sense, are orphans – they come without any family, or [are] women who have lost their husbands and sons because of war […] the Bible specifically asks us to care for orphans and widows, and also commands to care for the foreigner […] I see that Jesus stuck his neck out and cared for people and helped people, and He is a role model for us.”
Instructions to care for outsiders and the vulnerable are throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament (eg Lev 19:33-34; Deu 10:18-19; Zec 7:9) and the New Testament (eg Luke 3:11; Heb 13:2) .
When we look at Jesus’ own life, we see that He Himself had loving compassion on those who were outcasts and outsiders, such as the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:20-22), tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17), and children (Mark 10:13-16).
As Christians we are not only instructed to love others, but we have received so much love. It is a love that is far from abstract; a love that compels us to love others sacrificially, the way Jesus loved us on the cross, the way God continues to love us today.
3. Coffee, football, and friendship
We have great reason to love and care for refugee neighbours in our community, but often it can be hard to know how. One of the ways Lisa and her church have shown love to their refugee community is by running Cafe International, a weekly cafe where visitors can meet others who they can identify with, who may have experienced similar journeys or have fled their home due to persecution. It is also a place where they can experience hospitality and practice their language skills in a church setting, even though many are Muslim. Many from Lisa’s church go to the cafe to just sit with people, but several have also been able to help provide work experience.
Cafe International also runs a course called Al Massira. Each week they watch a short DVD with discussion questions looking at what Christianity is about and the differences between Islam and Christianity. Lisa says that
“People with other faiths are so open to talk about their beliefs, [which] also means they’re open to dialoguing about what we believe.”
One of the ways Lisa’s husband Kevin volunteers is by playing soccer with refugee youth. Many of these youths are young boys, often under 18 years old and sent by their families who gathered all their money together to try and get them to a safe country.
“Every Friday they use the church sport hall to play soccer with these guys and build friendships with them. […] that’s been going for a couple of years now and we have people come with [Athletes in Action] who are volunteers who help”
4. So what can we do?
Some of us may belong to churches who are already facilitating similar spaces and programmes as Lisa’s. If not, these may be ideas we can suggest to our home churches. However for some of us these ideas may be beyond our church’s resources. It is encouraging though, that this does not mean our own personal capacity to love others is limited. Lisa highlighted that the biggest need refugees have is genuine friendship.
“I think the biggest thing, like I mentioned before that we can help with and pray about is befriending people. Because when you know you have someone who is available to call, and to explain things culturally or read a letter that you don’t understand […] when you have someone who can take you to events and show you how to do things and why, when you have someone who will take the time to check up on you, someone who will befriend you…[it’s huge].”
Lisa also suggested that becoming friends with a refugee is the best way we can close the distance between ourselves and “the refugee crisis”.
“[G]et personal. The bottom line is, unless we engage with people ourselves and actually take the time to invest in them and build a relationship, then it’s gonna be something that’s distant from us. [W]e hear about so many needs and see so many needs in the media. I see that each of us have a responsibility to choose to invest our time – to choose to get out of our comfort zone and invite someone out for coffee, or spend some time with them and go for a walk along the beach or help them develop language skills – that’s a choice that each of us have.”
Outside of their church, Lisa’s family have built relationships with their refugee neighbours by inviting them over for BBQs, praying for them and with them, having their children play together and help each other with homework, helping them with errands that require a car, and simply introducing them to some of the way things are done in their new country.
“Even the fact that we hang our washing outside – they’ve learned that it’s ok for them to hang their washing outside too.”
As with any relationship, respect, spending time with one another, and building trust has been crucial for Lisa to be able to share more of who Jesus is and what He looks like in her and her family’s life. At a BBQ they hosted for example, Lisa and Kevin asked their refugee neighbours if they could pray before the meal.
“They were thankful that we would respectfully pray, and then [the father] asked if he could also pray for the meal to Allah and we said that was ok too.”
5. Taking the First Step
There are several ways we can take the first step in befriending refugees. Lisa suggests, “if you’re not sure who’s a refugee in the community, then ask someone – teachers or principals.” Alternatively, if you and your church are eager to start or revamp programmes like the ones from Lisa’s stories but are unsure of where to start, Love Your Neighbour may be able to equip you with what you need. There are also organisations like Red Cross who have volunteer programmes to help with tasks such as setting up a home for a refugee family before they arrive, helping the family enrol with schools and doctors, and generally explaining how things work in New Zealand.
Besides these, we can simply look around in our neighbourhood. We may be surprised to find that there are families and individuals right in front of us who are in need of a prayerful friend by their side.
If you’re keen for more reading, here’s a short one on Who Is My Neighbour? – “The word ‘neighbour’ implies someone who lives beside us. But in this fast-paced age, are we tempted to overlook the person who is right next door?”
If you have a friend who may be interested in exploring who Jesus is, you could check out the Jesus Film app together. With over 200 (free!) videos in 1400+ languages, you’re bound to find something to watch and discuss together.