OCEANS OF HOPE - DIGNITY FOR THE WEAKEST IN SOCIETY
Smitten By Faith Issue # 00022 1st January 2022
Today is the 1st day of January 2022. I wish all my readers a very HAPPY AND BLESSED NEW YEAR !
Above : The magnificent 13th century fresco by Giotto di Bondone, ‘The Flight Into Egypt’
Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus were refugees more than two thousand years ago when they had to flee Jerusalem for the safety of Egypt.
For millions of refugees, migrants and displaced people worldwide, this new year day is just another day in limbo as they wait to be processed for asylum; succour and a place of safety. They continue to wait in hope even when, for far too many families, the waiting period of months and years have stretched into two or even three generations; and even when hundreds of thousands have already died trying to reach safe borders.
This new year’s day, let’s stop to reflect; let’s try to understand and share the suffering of the weakest in society; look at their suffering in the context of a larger story - that God stands on the side of the oppressed and that all mankind will receive God’s unconditional love and grace. Pope Francis in his October 2020 encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ reminds us that we are all brothers and sisters and this means the well-being of each one of us – especially the displaced – must be uppermost in our thoughts ? The Pope’s encyclical was a big and resounding ‘NO’ to global indifference. The Pope echoes St. Francis of Assisi’s call for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother “as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him” - regardless of where he or she was born or lives.
Wars, conflicts and persecution cause refugees to flee their native countries; leave their homes, livelihoods and become homeless; losing their freedom but never, their inherent human dignity. Refugees, migrants and displaced people do not want our pity. Their predicament should bring out our humanity because it is from their sufferings that we learn huge lessons about the indomitability of the human spirit. Displaced people have endured and overcome much hardship; their courage is to be admired and when refugees are given the opportunity to re-build their lives whether in a third country or back in their own, have much to contribute.
So my New Year article today contains SHORT PERSONAL STORIES of HOPE - from displaced people and also from the many compassionate volunteers who help them. Their stories are of love, mercy, courage and oceans of hope.
Be connected and be transformed.
From Mexico – a volunteer Christa provides a harrowing account of the experience of migrants at the Mexico/USA border.
From the United Kingdom and Syria - Malaz, a refugee from Syria has overcome all odds, rebuilt and made a successful new life in the UK;
From Iraq - Ligia, a refugee from Iraq suffered displacement but managed to return to her own country. Rita, a volunteer from the UK relates Ligia’s Story.
From Indonesia – Thomas and Genashtim help educate refugees; and Arta a refugee from Afghanistan writes of his deep gratitude.
From Myanmar, a conflict zone – we share some heart-rending stories and reflections.
From Rome, Martina from the Jesuit Refugee Service brings optimism and universal dignity to refugees
FROM MEXICO : The American Dream and Brothers on the Road – as related by a volunteer in Mexico , Christa Ramirez de Aguilar Riedel
CHRISTA is a courageous young volunteer in Mexico who tirelessly volunteers her time and her heart for the unending tide of humanity - the thousands of South American migrants at the Mexican-USA border. She is aware of the dangers but she fearlessly places herself in their midst to help as much as she can; she wants to be part of the hope and light in the midst of so much darkness. She writes her very poignant story of human suffering and dignity, and it’s a story that brings me to tears and yet, Christa speaks about hope. She tells us to take heart – that we are all brothers on the same road. Thank you Christa for this empathetic reminder !
Left : The unending tide of humanity - thousands and thousands of South American Migrants heading to the Mexican-USA border.
Right : Christa all wrapped up in her pink blanket taking a little break as a little migrant boy takes a picture of the ‘angel’ who is helping his family.
“ Talking about the American dream implies forgetting the long path through the Mexican hell. Now, the word "dream" weighs more on ears and tabloids, blinding us to the infinite number of risks faced by those who migrate through our country. Discrimination is probably the least of their problems. The less fortunate must embark on a long and fearful journey on the famous "Bestia", a vehicle connecting many wagons, where the number one rule is not to blink; otherwise through distraction, you run the risk of falling onto the tracks. Furthermore, for both the cartels and the government itself, migrants are considered gold mines and the perfect target for the recruitment of organized crime. The lucky ones will only be forced to pay a fee. However, the unfortunate ones will be recruited as mules to become the victims of extortion, rape, prostitution and other infamies. The risks arising along the way are tragic and extensive, leading inevitably to hunger, freezing cold and disease. This is precisely when we must focus our attention to raise the awareness that those who migrate leave a life behind seeking to survive. The human race will always walk towards survival, even when the only possible option is to leave everything behind and confront hell, lacking any other alternative.
It is important to understand that all human beings are migrants and thus we find ourselves constantly seeking survival. We must be empathetic and begin to break down those borders which limit empathy; everyone can contribute by simply showing empathy without discrimination based on nationalities. A clear example is Don Armando Vilchis, who adapted a mechanic workshop to receive all those who are looking for a roof on the road, that is why his shelter is called "Hermanos en el Camino de Armando Vilchis" (Brothers on the Road of Armando Vilchis”.
Above : the ‘Bestia’ or the ‘Beast’ - the vehicle connecting many wagons, the migrants all on top of each other - heading to Mexico.
FROM THE U.K and SYRIA : Malaz - one of the ‘lucky ones’ becomes a stronger person
I first met Malaz Madani about 10 years ago in London when he was dating my husband’s English God-daughter, Alexandra who was at university with him. Malaz is Syrian by birth and is now a naturalized and proud British citizen, but his homeland ‘Syria’ is etched indelibly and forever in his heart. Malaz comes from the bombed-out city of Homs in Syria and his entire family went through the horrible trauma of war and displacement. For Malaz, a safe place of refuge is very meaningful and precious and he wrote the extract below in my book, ‘MILLENNIALS MEET MARY’ when he commented on the Giotto di Bondone’s ‘The Flight Into Egypt’.
“What can be a better modern-day reflection on ‘The Flight into Egypt’ by Giotto than the scene of Syrian refugees walking in groups to reach shelter in neighbouring and distant countries? As Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt from their homeland in fear of persecution by an evil and furious king, so too did millions of Syrians, including my own family. They escaped bullets and missiles raining down indiscriminately - devastating their homes. Yet, my family and I feel very blessed compared to the millions of Syrians who have been wounded, lost their loved ones and are still suffering in refugee camps. I remember clearly the time when my family fled the country and became refugees. It was early February 2012 when the regime shut down all means of communication and launched an offensive attack on Homs where my parents lived. I was in London and wasn’t able to reach any of my family members whilst horrifying news kept flooding in on social media. I finally managed to get hold of my sister. We both immediately broke down in tears. Four days later, my parents, my 2 brothers, my brother’s wife and his 2 children fled the country with a small suitcase each, leaving everything else behind. We all thought that it would only be a matter of a few days or weeks before they could return home. Nine years later, we are still waiting for this moment. It was devastating and depressing. For almost two years, they were living each day as if tomorrow they could pack up and go home. All my parents would talk about were the things they wanted to do; places to visit and things to buy when they returned home; while in reality, the situation kept escalating and getting worse.
I am one of the lucky ones. My destiny had led me to the UK in 2006, five years before the Syrian revolution, to study and work. I am thankful to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the British Government who approved my asylum request and gave me a place of refuge to stay safe. Seeing my family going through this tough time has transformed me from the youngest chilled-out son enjoying his life in London to a man who is now responsible for providing both emotional and financial support to his family. The war in Syria has made me a stronger person and more focused on achieving success and financial security as our family have lost almost everything.
Are Refugees Dangerous? While millions are still suffering, many people in the East and the West have lost their empathy and compassion. Helping refugees has changed from being a noble and civilized cause to being a claim of political naivety or even irresponsibility. The refugee crisis has been politicized. The anti-refugee narrative has become very powerful but also indiscriminate; it doesn’t differentiate between economic migrants and refugees who have been forced to flee their country for fear of imminent death. While exaggerating the social and economic impact of granting asylum has been a common theme in the media, studies and research suggest a different story. For instance, in Germany and Italy, the crime rate has declined in the past few years despite the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees in both countries. As for the impact on the economy, a study published in Science Advances in June 2018 showed that the economies of countries receiving refugees and economic migrants became stronger and unemployment rates dropped. We ‘humans’ should learn from history and return to our roots as compassionate souls. With our 24/7 connectivity and instant flooding of information and news from everywhere, we have all become ‘Global Citizens’. We can’t watch people suffering even across borders and not try to help them; that’s not in our nature.”
Post-Script : Today after years of studying and working in the UK, Malaz is a proud British citizen. He is an example of courage, dignity, triumph of the human spirit - undefeated by the trials of war and deprivation. Malaz also epitomizes the hard working and entrepreneurial refugee. He started a blog (Arageek.com) in 2012 which became a very successful media company. After Malaz received his citizenship papers, he proudly proposed to his English rose, Alexandra and they are now happily married. Her parents who are my very good friends are so proud and happy to have Malaz as part of their family. His addition has definitely enriched their family unit.
FROM THE UK : LIGIA’S STORY OF DIGNITY AND CHARM - as related by a volunteer, RITA CANNON
In the United Kingdom, many generous people have opened their homes and their hearts to asylum seekers offering their homes for them to stay indefinitely while waiting for their applications to be processed. RITA CANNON from Nottingham is one of them. It is a generosity which comes out of unconditional love and embodies what Pope Francis writes in his encyclical – FRATELLI TUTTI – that we are brothers all. For many years now, Rita Cannon has been a volunteer for ‘Host Nottingham’ which is actively involved in awareness raising and campaigning for a just asylum system working with other agencies to tackle homelessness among asylum seekers and refugees in Nottingham. Rita sent me this lovely personal story of LIGIA from IRAQ to whom she gave a much appreciated shelter and a ‘home’; in return Rita says that it was such a privilege to have met and known LIGIA.
Left : Ligia with a big smile on her face as she waits for Pope Francis to arrive in Erbil.
Right : Ligia at her graduation in Nottingham University.
RITA’S STORY ABOUT LIGIA
“We’ve hosted several asylum seekers over the past years, a couple for a few days, most for three or four months and two for about a year. One of these was a young lady from Iraq. LIGIA was doing a PhD at Nottingham University when ISIS launched an offensive in Northern Iraq in June 2014. Her home, a village outside Erbil, in the Ninevah plains was in the area where much of the fighting was happening. The following year all the northern region of Iraq was devastated and many families had to leave seeking refuge in other countries, including Ligia’s family. One sister managed to get to Jordan with her mother and father, another to France, another to Australia, and a brother and family to Germany … a family dispersed throughout the world! The fabric of Iraq had collapsed. Ligia was directly affected as banks were not open for business and her means of support dried up. How could she continue her studies? She wrote to the University about her situation, and due to her being a special case was awarded £800, to help cover costs so she could continue her studies.
She lived with us for a year – a warm and charming young lady, very generous and always wanting to help. She prepared some delicious Middle eastern cuisine which she loved to share with us and friends. She worked relentlessly on her studies and it could have been a happy time if not for the cloud that hung over her, eclipsing her bright, cheerful disposition - having to deal with the worry about her future and the well-being of her family. The internet allowed her to keep in contact with her family, and this together with her great faith in God kept her going. She completed her studies and got her degree in 2016. She applied for asylum in the UK but it was refused! We were all devastated and suggested to ask for an appeal. However, after much thought, instead of fighting an appeal she decided to go back home to Iraq. By December 2017 ISIS had lost most of its territory in that region, including Mosul. One of her brothers had gone back and she was ready to go back home and rebuild her home, her church, her city and her future. I think it was very brave and extremely difficult. But people like Ligia are very resilient. She was thrilled when Pope Francis went to Iraq. She is married now and works as a lecturer at Hawler Medical University. And we feel very privileged to have met her and shared a very small part of her life.”
FROM SOUTH-EAST ASIA : GOOD NEIGHBOURS – HOW THOMAS NG and GENASHTIM IN SINGAPORE HELP EDUCATE REFUGEES IN INDONESIA
Above : Thomas with his teacher volunteers in Bogor, Indonesia
After 25 years as an international corporate executive, THOMAS NG founded GENASHTIM, a social enterprise registered in Singapore. Operating remotely, Genashtim had already ( since 2008) provided training and job opportunities for the disabled and other disadvantaged communities, when in 2018, Thomas visited a refugee transit camp in Bogor, Indonesia with around 3,000 refugees from the Middle East ( out of more than 13,000 refugees sent to transit camps all over Indonesia). What Thomas saw and experienced opened his eyes, his heart and his resources to the plight of refugees in transition. This is what THOMAS NG writes.
“ Refugees in transition countries have no right to work; no right to a bank account; their children have no access to education and worse of all, they all know that there is almost no prospect of relocation for at least the next 20 years. It was heart-breaking for me to see this. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq - they are all such fine people, well educated, elegant, dignified. But, it was also heart-warming for me to meet them. Their children were so proud and happy to be at the makeshift school set up at the camps by the refugees themselves . The Refugees here don't want cash hand-outs; they wish only to be able to be helped – the right way. What could I do? How can I help? I saw that there was a huge need to help their children with education. They already do this themselves with the little resources they have. They have set up their own learning centres and they teach the children themselves. They have tried crowd-funding and have managed to teach about 150 students per learning centre for the measly amount of US$ 5 per student per month. The teachers cover their own costs for food and transport. I could see that this would not be sustainable in the long run. So, at Genashtim, we set up the ‘adopt a teacher campaign’ for the refugee camps in Indonesia and to date we have been able to adopt 60 teachers. We are able to provide each volunteer teacher ( refugees themselves ) with a small amount a month – barely able to cover their transport and meals. They don't ask for a salary.” (Persons wishing to adopt a teacher can contact Thomas directly at email@example.com).
ARTA - an Afghan refugee in Bogor who has been helped by Thomas Ng and Genashtim writes this :-
"There are several problems that refugees face and many competent displaced people are unable to work .Many children are not receiving an adequate education. Genashtim, by hiring displaced individuals, enables us to work safely from our remote locations and support our families financially. During the epidemic, only civilians were prioritized for vaccination; not refugees. Genashtim purchased 800 vaccinations and immunized refugees. Genashtim is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me."
FROM CONFLICT ZONES - MYANMAR
DISPLACED IN ONE’S OWN COUNTRY – REFLECTIONS OF HOPE
Minority ethnic and religious groups are targeted and oppressed by the military in Myanmar. They are all living in conflict zones hiding from the military – refugees in their own country. The ‘fortunate’ ones manage to escape to the neighbouring transit countries of Thailand and Malaysia where they languish for years as they wait for the world not only to help give them asylum and a future but most of all to take heed of the military atrocities committed against the ethnic minorities who are at risk each day as they fight for their lives; displaced in their own country and wait for international help. I share here, a very dramatic first person account of one such desperate person’s flight to safety. And, additionally, as a positive note on Myanmar, I also share 4 beautiful reflections of hope from displaced ethnic minorities – displaced - but never losing hope in God and humanity. Let us pause and think of them.
FROM A MYANMAR ETHNIC MINORITY - FLEEING INTO THE PADDY FIELDS AND JUNGLES ( name withheld for protection )
Since May 2021 there has been no peace in my village as people have to flee to different locations to escape the fighting between the military junta and the people’s defense forces. It was the very first time for our peaceful villagers – all farmers - to have to run for their lives; some of them weren’t prepared for that since the coup. So, it was such a chaotic, shocking and terrifying experience us. We ran away to hide from the military; first to the paddy fields and then deep into the jungle. This has become the new normal for us, the ethnic minorities. We have lost our farms, our valuables and our livelihood. We ran away with just the clothes on our back. When the military came, it was such a terrifying moment. We live in a very uncertain and fearful situation. Do we stay in the jungle or go back to our villages where we had left everything ? Our paddy fields still need harvesting. At the same time there were worries that the soldiers can return at any time and we can be hit by gun shots as the place is quite close to the war zone. If we don’t take the risk to go home, the paddies, sunflowers and peanuts harvests will all get spoilt. Many did not return. I returned but every day, I live in fear and feel uncertain – ready to flee at any time to the paddy fields and jungle again. I am so tired- physically and mentally.
Above - Myanmar in conflict zones - fleeing to the jungle
FOUR REFLECTIONS OF HOPE FROM DISPLACED PEOPLE IN MYANMAR
( their names withheld to protect them )
“After four months of the military coup, I was in our village in the hills. I lost my cousin in the bombardment and I believe that God has taken him back as his son to the Kingdom where there will be no more pain. I was happy to see and thank God for those who were only wounded; that God saved and kept them alive. I totally entrust to God the safety of everyone when we were fleeing to different places. I entrusted to God the protection of our camp when the other camps were burnt. I believe that God never abandons his people when I see that people are helping each other by donating what they have. There are times that my faith is faint and weak; when there is still so much suffering and discrimination. But, God is keeping me awake to see his goodness from the bad situations.”
Experiencing and responding to the global covid-19 pandemic for the first time, I can see that this is a great opportunity to bring back inner hope and restore the beauty of our Mother Earth - despite our having to flee from our homes and living in fear. It brought us back to connect with God as well as to our neighbours as we had previously been so busy toiling for our material lives. It was also time to let the Mother Earth take a rest to bring back the green land to the earth from deforestation through people’s actions or natural disaster.
When there was military shelling, I was in our village. The helicopter was flying above our heads but I could not do anything aside from feeling totally scared. During that time, I was asking where our God is and even I didn’t trust God. Because I felt that God was neglecting us and punishing for what we had done in the past. I could not see God ; I saw all the things in a negative way and it was depressing. But now I am able to see this situation in another way. Just as in Job’s story, God wants us to give more blessings especially for our country, especially to change the situation so that I can grow my faith. Now, I realize that how I respond to this situation is important.
My experience and feeling of the coup are hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, pain, insecurity, anxiety and unfairness. Yet I believe that surely God has an incredible plan for Myanmar and every day I choose to set my eyes on Him more than before. There is a Gospel passage which encourages me. For human beings this is impossible but for God all things are possible. (Mt.19:26)
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God and have faith also in me''(Jn.14:1)
FROM ROME - THE JESUIT REFUGEE SERVICE- KEEPING HOPE ALIVE ; REFRAMING THE WAY WE SPEAK ABOUT REFUGEES
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS ) strives to “serve, accompany and advocate” for refugees all over the world and paint them in a dignified light and further underscore that refugees seek a better life, one full of dignity and value. Their motto of the JRS is ‘KEEP HOPE ALIVE’. MARTINA BEZZINI, the Head of Communications division of the JRS shares below.
“ We often hear about the ‘refugee crisis’ and the growing numbers of forced displacement, but it is not only about statistics. It is about real people: each with a name, a story, and a desire to live a life filled with dignity and meaning. Since our founding in 1980, the Jesuit Refugee Service has worked with millions of refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world, sharing their journeys and promoting their rights to protection, opportunity, and participation in society. We believe that our journeying with refugees is the most important way for us to express our solidarity with them and our concern for their wellbeing. In a world where refugees are more than ever in need of welcome, protection and justice, and yet are increasingly rejected, demonised, and denied their fundamental human rights, JRS offers them accompaniment as a sign of hope and a way towards healing. Our mission puts special emphasis on “being with” rather than “doing for” - we want our presence among refugees and forcibly displaced people to be one of sharing with them, of walking together along their journey of healing, restoring dignity, and rebuilding a sustainable life for themselves and their families. Even in the most desperate of situations, we remain with refugees to assure them that the world has not forgotten them, and that they are not alone. Pope Francis reminds us that we are in one boat together, and only together can we create a world where everyone has a chance to flourish and live with dignity.”
THANK YOU FOR REMINDING US OF HOPE AND GOD : Christa, Malaz, Rita, Ligia, Thomas, Arta, Martina and the displaced people of Myanmar whom I cannot name.
And, so I would like to end as I began - with this flame of hope as we try “to be with” our displaced brothers and sisters. Keep them in our hearts. For 2022, let us look deep into our hearts and ask how we can be a good neighbour to our fellow men ? There is a very simple answer in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In His parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said a good neighbour is the one who shows mercy. Love for one another is all we need. In the first letter of St. John the Apostle, the first verse in the opening Chapter of St. John’s Gospel says it all :
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.”
WISHING ALL MY READERS A BLESSED AND A NEW YEAR FILLED WITH HOPE AND LOVE !
Editor’s Note :
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