Would you make space for a refugee?

‘Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion.’ (Jean Vanier)


The dreadful images and intense media interest in the plight of refugees in camps in Calais, at train stations around Europe, and on perilous boats in the sea have made me think a great deal about three people. Sara, her husband Temeselew, and their friend Negatu came to live with my family when I was eight years old. We met them, my mother and sister and I, when we were at church one Sunday morning. They had walked from their home country, Ethiopia, fleeing a Marxist regime, to Nairobi in Kenya where my family lived. Sara was so ill and malnourished that she fainted in my mother’s arms. My mother invited them to come home with us, possibly she was thinking of lunch, but they stayed for over a year.

My sister and I moved our bedrooms in together so Sara and Temeselew could have my room, and Negatu had the spare room. Was I indignant at the loss of my bedroom? Maybe at the time, but I don’t recall being so now. I certainly don’t remember resenting their presence. Were we fearful about who these strangers were or what they might do? Not particularly. Or if my parents were they didn’t show it. Did we worry about how long they might stay or what effect their presence would have on our family life? Not that I remember. We grew to know and love these three. They become our friends, as did their associated friends, who also used to come to our house often. I loved combing their large 1970s Ethiopian hair with a traditional African wooden comb (and they would in turn comb my rather pathetic English bob). They cooked food for us, told us stories, laughed and loved and blessed our home. My parents helped them with their English. They played with us. Sara and Temeselew recovered, got back on their own two feet, eventually moving to the USA, where they now live. I don’t know what become of Negatu, but I expect a similar story.

So rhetoric about ‘these migrants’ and what they might do if they ‘overrun’ our country does not chime well with my experience. I know the situation is complex (how often we hear that; it seems almost impossible to comment on the crisis without saying something like it). I know that 2015 in the UK is not 1978 in Kenya. But it seems to me that all my mother did that Sunday morning was to respond to a basic human instinct to offer hospitality to another in need. And it was good, and it helped, and it worked, and there was blessing all round. If the UK government bowed to mounting pressure and ‘let in’ more than a trickle of the people fleeing conflict and terror in their own land, I wonder if we would be willing to offer hospitality, and how far would we go with that? Would I be willing to open my home to a refugee family as my mother did all those years ago? It is unlikely that the solution to the crisis will rest with every family in the UK taking a Syrian family into their spare bedroom (although some of that could happen).

The Bible carries a strong motif of hospitality towards strangers, aliens, and refugees. From the command in Leviticus to ‘love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ to the practice in the book of Ruth of leaving the gleanings of the harvest for the refugee to eat, to the sacrificial hospitality of the widow of Zarephath to Elijah, to Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, the Bible is full of examples of hospitality. In his book Hospitality as Holiness Luke Bretherton says that hospitality, sharing homes and tables, was the way in which Jesus brought about his radical agenda of transformation: ‘Through his hospitality, which has as its focal point actual feasting and table fellowship, Jesus turns the world upside down’. Is this easy? It certainly wasn’t for Jesus and there is no reason it should be for us. As I said, it’s complex. Being hospitable involves opening up ourselves, being vulnerable, being trusting. It might end badly. It certainly did for Jesus (apparently, and in worldly terms). But until we are willing to risk reaching out and trusting those who are different to us and who require our help, we will never know the joy and blessing those relationships can bring.

Jean Vanier, speaking of his work living in community with those with learning disabilities, says: ‘The excluded live certain values that we all need to discover and live ourselves before we can become fully human. It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends’. The situation is complex (I’ll say it again), but I wonder if one response to the pictures we see on our screens and in our newspapers is to begin to envisage the people we see there as our future friends.

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