Today’s Refugees: History Repeats Itself
By Eileen Turner of Newberg, OR, USA
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? —Isaiah 58:6–7 NRSV
We hear news reports of people fleeing their homelands, carrying what they can on their backs, in buses, and on boats. We read of desperate searches of the seas for stranded refugees fleeing state-sanctioned discrimination or religious persecution.
Years ago, my family was living in Hong Kong. I enrolled my children in an international elementary school with all its privileges. At the end of the year, I was asked if I would stay and help with a pilot program teaching young Vietnamese refugee children.
Times were desperate. Two thousand people were arriving on the shores daily. Refugee camps were “maxed-out” on supplies. The program would prepare children to go to English-speaking countries with some English language and customs and ease their adjustment as they were uprooted from their culture.
Within the first week, I learned why they asked me to bring my two children. Children need no language to take part in sports and games. Soon they were swimming, playing, helping with alphabet memorization, drawing, writing, teaching, and sharing together without any need for direction. Simple tasks we take for granted, like using eating utensils, were obstacles at first. As my sons practiced picking up a grain of rice with chopsticks, the Vietnamese children were making a game of using a fork.
Misgiving shadowed the laughter and joy of the children with an undercurrent of sorrow for the past. Their drawings depicted families split apart, fathers or grandparents left behind. Not knowing whether their families would reunite weighed on their hearts.
Despite differences, there is always common ground. One day, a tiny Vietnamese girl, perhaps 10 years old, wandered over to the piano and played a beautiful Mozart melody. It made me realize we have more likenesses than differences. Her music was a gift to all.
Each day most of the children arrived shoeless in tattered or soiled clothes. Conditions in the refugee camps were deplorable. When a child arrived with new shoes and clothes, we knew it would be our last day with that child. It meant another family had been placed on the transfer list. So for them and us, it was a bittersweet day, but also one of celebration—for a new life ahead.
We live in a world where history surely repeats itself. Today’s “boat people” or migrants from the Middle East are desperately escaping dangerous conditions. They often find themselves in equally unsafe places. Religious persecution, abject poverty, war, and long-standing hatred among sects challenge us even more to find joy, hope, love, and peace. Sometimes the children are the ones who help us find the way.
Prayer for Peace
Compassionate God, just as Jesus and his family were once refugees, open our hearts to those who must leave their homes. Help us welcome, as family, those whose loved ones were left behind.
Spiritual Practice: Listening to Children
Sit in your quiet place and center your heart and mind in God’s presence. Spend several minutes asking God to bring into your awareness the names and images of children in your life. You may see their faces or hear their voices as you receive these impressions. Listen deeply to the unique gifts and needs of the children who come to mind. Offer a prayer of blessing for each child and the needs you sense. If you feel led, you also may want to write a note or card and give a message of affirmation and love to each child.
Today, God, I will assist in finding sanctuary and peace for a displaced family.