In the face of the overwhelming news and statistics about the refugee crisis, you might ask yourself, Why is this happening? This question is a very important one, but many around the world have decided to ask themselves another question: What can I do? Theologian Ron Sider once said, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and together we can change the world.” Emily Philips, a college student overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, recognized she couldn’t do everything, but she decided to do something. This is her story.
So, here I am in Northern Greece. It’s actually happening. Last August, my heart was broken for these people known as “refugees.” They have fled, and are still fleeing their countries, as bombs have been detonated and terrorism has taken up the reigns of power. I saw pictures and read statistics, and my heart burned and broke for them.
I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew that the numbers were numbing me. It was only when I saw little Aylan and heard his story that my heart connected with refugees as fellow humans, with imperfect families, individual faces, and favorite foods. I knew there was something powerful in the individual in the midst of a multitude.
So my boyfriend and I made bracelets. We made red bracelets, hundreds of bracelets. On each one, we placed a letter representing the beginning of a name; the beginning of a story; the beginning of seeing past a number and realizing that refugees are humans standing at our fences, after all. Our goal was to fight against the de-humanizing tendencies of big statistics and to see these people neither as villains or victims, but as humans with letters to their names. We prayed and we cried and we waited, feeling useless in our insulated affluent world.
And then stuff worked out. For five weeks I get to spend my days with these people. The letters of the bracelets have begun to form names, and the names have formed friends. Now, I am no longer able to see these people as “refugees.” Yes, they have fled their land in search of relief from terror. Yes, they have ridden packed boats across dangerous waters. Yes, they have carried covers with them in fear that militants would find the women with bare faces along the way. But this is not their identity. This is not the box that I can place them in neatly any longer.
Now, they are my Kurdish friends from Aleppo, Syria. They are the boys that are much better at chess than I am. They are the men around a table who try over and over to pronounce “elbow” with me, and who laugh with me as I try to say “cooaiede” to represent the same thing in their tongue. They are the women who share bread and tea with me. They are Orivan and Maaz and Diana and Dered and Muhammed and Osama and Salama. They aren’t just “refugees” anymore, and I’m struggling to be in a world that primarily sees them as solely that.
So I’m going to do my best to tell a different story, to proclaim a new narrative against the one of stereotypes and fear that we’ve been told to buy into and stock up on. This is not the story of abundance that the gospel proclaims. When we are able to place large numbers of humans into generic totals and blanket statements, it becomes possible to dismiss them into the shadows of our consciousness and the horizons of our hearts.
All of this comes undone when we see a human. Re-humanizing people is a messy business, for it no longer allows us to be numb to their pain or homogenize their faces. These people aren’t just refugees. They aren’t something to be feared. They buy me ice cream on Saturday nights and give me cold water on hot afternoons. And if I remember right, that’s something I’ve been called to do too.
*Originally published in Emily Phillip’s personal blog, The Omer.