Newly arrived Sudanese refugees in February 2018 wait behind a wire fence at a reception center in Yida, South Sudan. While millions of South Sudanese flee their country in what the United Nations has called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of people from neighboring Sudan have found an unlikely haven there from fighting at home. (Sam Mednick/Associated Press file)
Jesus Christ was a refugee in every sense of the word.
A refugee is someone forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, refugees cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
This definition comes from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United Nations agency based in Geneva, Switzerland, with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
Jesus fled, displaced when he returned
Jesus became a refugee during the time of the wise men, or magi. This happened long after his birth; the wise men do not belong in the manger scene.
When King Herod heard that wise men from the east visited Jerusalem to look for the child born king of the Jews, he was jealous. Herod asked the magi to tell him where Jesus was “so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Right. When the magi left town without informing Herod about Jesus’ whereabouts, Herod was enraged and killed every child in and around Bethlehem 2 years old and younger. So, Jesus was a toddler when this happened.
But our future Savior was no longer in town. Before Herod’s massacre, an angel of the Lord told his dad, Joseph, to get out of Dodge and flee to Egypt with his young family because of the threat of violence.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph remained in Egypt until Herod died. Even after that, they were afraid to settle in Jesus’ hometown of Bethlehem, so they landed in Nazareth. This story is told in Matthew 2.
I don’t understand why many, if not most, conservative Christians in the United States are so opposed to immigration. Jesus was an immigrant. He and his family were forced to flee their homeland by night to escape persecution and death.
And while they did return to their home country, they did not feel safe in their hometown – which is the definition of a forcibly displaced family, according to UNHCR.
So, Jesus understands perfectly well the plight of immigrants, because he was one.
Refugees face strict scrutiny
Immigration, of course, is not a uniquely United States issue.
Two-thirds of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.
When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded.
The United States resettlement program is the largest in the world and the U.S. has been the global leader in resettling refugees since the 1970s – so this is not a new issue at all. Refugee resettlement to the U.S. is traditionally offered to the most vulnerable refugee cases including women and children at risk, women heads of households, the elderly, survivors of violence and torture, and those with acute medical needs.
The process of refugee resettlement to the U.S. is a lengthy and thorough process that takes about two years and involves numerous U.S. governmental agencies.
Refugees do not choose the country in which they would like to live. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, identifies the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement and then makes recommendations to select countries.
Once a refugee is recommended to the U.S. for resettlement, the U.S. government conducts a thorough vetting of each applicant. This process takes between 12 and 24 months and includes:
- Screening by eight federal agencies including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the FBI
- Six security database checks and biometric security checks screened against U.S. federal databases
- Medical screening
- Three in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officers
Since 1975, the U.S. has welcomed more than 3 million refugees from all over the world, and these refugees have built new lives for their families in all 50 states.
Refugees and their families have woven themselves into the fabric of American society. They are our neighbors, our friends and our colleagues. They are teachers, business owners and contribute positively to communities across the country.
Noteworthy facts by region/country
- Since 2013, nearly 1 million men, women and children have fled their homes in desperation, seeking refuge within mosques and churches, as well as in neighboring countries (Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and the Republic of the Congo).
- In recent years, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have experienced a dramatic escalation in violence by organized criminal groups, locally called maras.
- Current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in the region.
- The number of people fleeing for their lives from Central America has grown by ten times in the past five years.
- The ongoing conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world is causing large-scale displacement. Refugees are seeking safety beyond the immediate region.
- Since 2015, more than 1.4 million people have taken their chances aboard unseaworthy boats and dinghies in a desperate attempt to reach Greece, Italy and Spain en route to Europe.
- More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced across the country since the start of 2014 and more than 240,000 are refugees in other countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Germany.
- Since December 2013, brutal conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and driven 3.3 million people from their homes. While an estimated 1.9 million people remain displaced inside the country, 2.2 million have fled as refugees to neighboring countries in a desperate bid to reach safety.
- Uganda currently hosts the most South Sudanese refugees, having taken in more than 1 million people.
- Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, with 13 million people at the end of 2018. That’s more than half of the Syrian population.
- More than 5 million people have fled Syria seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. In Lebanon, where more than 1 million Syrian refugees reside, there are no formal refugee camps and about 70 percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line.
- In Jordan, more than 660,000 Syrian refugees are trapped in exile. About 80 percent of them live outside camps, while more than 140,000 have found sanctuary at the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps. 93 percent of refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.
- As of April 2018, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya children, women and men have fled to Bangladesh escaping violence in Myanmar since Aug. 25, 2017.
- The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar. The vast majority of Rohingya refugees are women and children, including newborn babies. Many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection.
- Two and a half years of conflict have left more than 1 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes, including 66,000 people with disabilities.
- 300,000 others have sought asylum in neighboring countries.
- Fighting in Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, has severely compounded needs arising from long years of poverty and insecurity.
- Nearly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance. Those forced to flee their homes are especially at risk. More than 2 million people now languish in desperate conditions, away from home and deprived of basic needs. The situation is so dire that 1 million displaced Yemenis have lost hope and tried to return home, even though it is not yet safe.
Brotherhood and sisterhood
This is the life our Lord and Savior lived as a very young child. Jesus overcame that beginning as an outcast to lead the most productive life imaginable.
Today’s immigrants can follow a similar path. Very few are terrorists, which is all conservatives want to talk about. (Most “terrorists” are already in this country, by the way – and aren’t necessarily from other countries.)
I meet displaced people all the time. Most are from Puerto Rico thanks to Hurricane Maria, which isn’t the same as fleeing war or violence, but their homeland is unlivable nonetheless. Many of them are working and trying to better themselves. They just need a helping hand to get started.
That’s how the United States began. We all were immigrants, seeking a better life. It didn’t come easy. It didn’t come quickly. But our forefathers persevered, and here we are.
As did Jesus. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a non-traditional family. His dad was a carpenter who wasn’t around when Jesus became an adult. He had half-siblings.
Refugees didn’t have sanctuary or asylum programs in Jesus’ day, but he survived.
As Americans, we can do better. We must do better. We judge others far too quickly, and often wrongly. They are our brothers and sisters.
That’s terminology Christians should understand. If our faith truly means anything, let’s start living it.