The day the refugee organization we worked for in Egypt had our big goodbye and send off, one of our refugee co-workers, Micah (not his real name), asked to speak with us privately before we left for the day.
Micah is a man we came to respect immensely in our time there. He is a South Sudanese refugee, has been in Egypt for years and years. He has a big family that he bends over backwards to provide for. This man works hard. Twice as hard as most of the rest of staff, always taking courses, and trying to improve himself. I saw many times him being stepped on, blamed, and taken advantage of. Other people got credit for his good work, he had to work 12 hour days and weekends sometimes, and was grossly underpaid.
My husband and I tried to stand up for him a few times, but he actually asked, gently, once or twice that we not even bother. He just wanted to keep his head down, plugging away, and keep his job, however underpaid he was and awfully he was treated at times. If providing for his family meant that he was treated as second-class (even in the church!) he was going to do it without complaint.
He was a tough nut to crack, but because I would constantly ask for his input about relevant programs and valued his experience and opinions more than my own, and because I was able to show him that I really cared about refugees, we did win him over. It took a little while, but I could tell he respected me too. It was not a small thing.
We walked back to the clinic, long deserted from the chaos of pregnant women and malnourished kiddos that flooded the place a few hours before. He put his head down and gently explained that, it was still on the hush, he and his big family had been selected for resettlement in the US.
This is news he’d been waiting for more than a decade for. He’d been through years of vetting – from UNHCR, from 6 federal US agencies, through rounds and rounds of interviews and mountains of paperwork – and was down to the last few steps. Only a few more months out.
He quietly explained that because he has children over 18, and because his family is so big, they are splitting them up and won’t be sending them all together. (This is because states only take a certain number of refugees each year, and they are more likely to be able to get placements as small groups instead of as one big family unit.) He assumed they’d send him, his wife, and the younger kiddos first. But he learned that they will probably be sending his older kids first, without him.
Before he could finish all that, my husband and I said, “Take our numbers and our email! Tell your kids to call us! Tell them to add us on Facebook! Keep us updated on everything! I don’t know where they’ll be, and America is big, but we’ll help if we can! We’ll be their contacts!”
This stoic, hard-working man with very measured expectations, who has been chewed up and spat out repeatedly by life, put his hand over his face and wept.
I cannot think of anyone else I know who deserves a new chance and start and opportunity with his family more than Micah. They are one of the lucky ones. Of all the refugees I know, for each lucky person who gets granted resettlement, there have to be hundreds of others who are permanently stuck in places that don’t want them, and where they don’t want to be, but with no way to safely return to their homelands, and no other options.
But now there is a new executive order on immigration. A process that is already extremely stringent, and takes no less than 2 years to get through (after years and years of waitlists to even be considered), now has refugees halted in the process for at least 120 days. And bans Sudanese.
(Note: My friend is South Sudanese. But South Sudan only became a country in it’s own right a few years ago. When those from the South fled the long, bloody civil war to the North, they were still Sudanese, as the country was still one. As such, he and many other South Sudanese still have Sudanese passports, though they are Southerners. So, they are part of the ban. It is messy and complicated and horrible, as most things are in refugee law and practice.)
Micah and his family, after enduring so much, and finally who have dared to hope that a new day is dawning for their family, will be stopped cold.
I am so sad and I am so angry. I think about all they have already endured and suffered. Fleeing war, being in a place where they have limited rights, face persecution, and are treated as second class. (Sometimes even in the church.) Those who have suffered long, now must endure even more.
We who count ourselves Christian, worship and pray to a man who was a refugee. A man who promised to judge the world on how they treat strangers. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
May we fight to welcome the stranger. Because when we put promises of safety at the top of our list, and build higher and higher walls, anxious to keep out those who Jesus welcomed to the table, we isolate ourselves. According to Matthew 25:40, what we’ve done for the least of our brothers we’ve done for our King. So I think when we fight to keep out the sick, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the stranger, I think who we are actually keeping out is Jesus.
Surely we will be judged for this.
Untitled; acrylic, 2009.