They stood together, surrounded by ten canvas bags, each marked with a name, probably Dari or Pashto. The bags contained everything they owned, most of it given to them when they entered the United States. Their children ran and played in the baggage claim area and maybe, for a short time, were able to forget the trauma they had endured. The adults looked nervous, their body language and facial expressions displaying fatigue and shock from their harrowing journey, a journey that began on the other side of the world when they fled their homes for the airport in Kabul with only the clothes on their backs, desperate to evade the approaching Taliban forces. As the city of Kabul fell, madness ensued. The airport became a swirling mass of people braving deadly conditions in hopes of gaining entry and securing passage out of the country. This family had made it, and now here they stood in Houston, Texas, waiting patiently with a resettlement caseworker who would take them on the next step in their relocation journey.
This scene continues to play out across the U.S. as thousands of Afghan refugees enter the country. Original estimates for the number expected to arrive in my hometown of Houston hovered around 1,500. Revised figures have risen dramatically, possibly doubling the current Afghan population within the Houston metropolitan area.
Afghanistan is no longer in the headlines, and the news media have all but forgotten about the refugees now coming to live among us. I’m hopeful the church will not do the same. They are here, in need, and facing an uncertain future. A question hangs heavy over the Christian community concerning this refugee crisis: How should we respond? Fortunately, we have a trustworthy source for answers.
A Modern-Day Retelling
In Scripture, the refugee goes by many names: alien, stranger, foreigner, sojourner. There are plenty of passages in the Old and New Testaments that give instruction on how we should treat them: Lev. 19:33-35, Deut. 10:17-19, Exod. 23:9, Matt. 25:35, Mark 12:31, and Heb. 13:1-3, to name a few. And then there are the numerous accounts of those who fled their homes under duress because of famine, death threats, exile, or family conflict: Abraham, Hagar, Ruth, Joseph, Jacob, and the entire nation of Israel in the Exodus. But by far, the most notable parallel to the experience of modern-day refugees is the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt after Herod vowed to murder all the young boys because of the one among them that he believed threatened his power (Matt. 2:13-23).
In a dream, an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to take his family and flee Bethlehem for Egypt, a land that wasn’t always a friend to the Jews. It was a risky choice but one that survival required. How did they manage to live as refugees in this foreign land? Scripture does not give details; however, extra-biblical sources, such as Josephus, and tradition tell of a significant Jewish community present in Egypt at that time that remained from previous exiles in Israel’s history. The ability to live among their people would have provided them with the support, food, and shelter they needed as they waited for the Lord to tell them they could return to Israel.
In many ways, we are experiencing a modern-day version of the flight-to-Egypt narrative.
There are several parallels between this story and our current refugee crisis: the imminent threat of death, the need to leave in a hurry, and the uncertainty about the welcome they would receive at their destination. And like the Holy Family, refugees to the U.S. also have an established community of fellow exiles, available support, food, shelter, and the hope of return. In many ways, we are experiencing a modern-day version of the flight-to-Egypt narrative.
A City of Refuge
Over the past several months, I’ve watched Houston expand its role as a place of refuge for hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan. My role on the global worker care team and missions council at my church has given me insight into the local and international organizations that are assisting refugees and the dedicated people who work on behalf of the displaced. I took the opportunity to talk with a few of them to get their perspective on this current crisis.
They all agreed that the primary needs of any refugee are food and shelter, but refugees also struggle in other areas related to navigating a new culture, a loss of identity, and establishing a support network. Things we do every day are significant obstacles for someone who doesn’t know the language, how to drive or take public transportation, open a bank account, enroll their children in school, or find a job (struggles that are all too familiar to any global worker). The five official resettlement agencies in Houston, numerous non-profit organizations, local churches, and many volunteers work together to smooth the way for these families upon their arrival.
the primary needs of any refugee are food and shelter, but refugees also struggle in other areas related to navigating a new culture, a loss of identity, and establishing a support network.
Hannah Quillin, Executive Director of Houston Welcomes Refugees (HWR), gave me an overview of how the process generally works. Most of their agency’s collaboration is with the YMCA International, one of the primary refugee resettlement organizations in the Houston area. The YMCA provides monetary support, legal assistance, medical access, employment, and many other resources as part of a safety net they offer families for at least six months after their arrival. Their caseworkers meet families at the airport and transport them to an apartment located in an area with an established Afghan community, a community that will become their lifeline as they learn to live in a culture very different from their own.
Volunteers from HWR’s Starting Essentials program prepare those apartments with household goods, bedding, groceries, and a hot meal. Volunteers from their Friendship program continue to fill the gaps in care by walking alongside refugee families for several months and helping them navigate the essentials of everyday life like riding a bus or shopping for groceries.
I also spoke with representatives from one of the local Houston organizations that focus primarily on English Language Learning. Seventy-five percent of their clients are Afghan, many of whom are women who have come to the U.S. on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) they received because of their husband’s assistance as translators to the U.S. military during the war. They are instructed by English teachers who volunteer their time to serve the refugee community. As you can imagine, learning English is a critical aspect of adjusting to life in the U.S., even in a city as diverse and multilingual as ours. The ability to communicate, for example, with their child’s teacher goes a long way in helping them adapt.
Ongoing collaboration between resettlement agencies, non-profits, faith-based organizations, and their many volunteers is crucial as the largest wave of refugees in decades makes the transition to the United States.
We Are All Sojourners
It is important to consider the plight of the refugee in a biblical context. God’s Word is clear about his heart for the foreigner and for the nations, and Christ’s own experience during his days on Earth was similar to what many refugees are experiencing today. He faced persecution and the threat of death as a young child and throughout the rest of his life. He lived an itinerant life, relying on the hospitality of strangers for food and shelter, and he ministered to the physical and, most of all, spiritual needs of outcasts and foreigners. Christ is our example to follow in showing love to this influx of human souls.
Remember, all our ancestors were once aliens in a foreign land. As believers, aren’t we still? “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Philippians 3:20)
“Our world desperately needs safe people and safe places. Hospitality is one way we become God’s welcoming arms in a big and often hostile world.” – Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
If you would like to know more about ministry to refugees, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out some of the following resources:
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband, Jeff, now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. You can find her on Twitter and texpatfaith.org.