This past Christmas, my nephew and his girlfriend, who live in California, let the family know that they would not be home for the holidays. Instead, they would be spending those days in Greece, working with a Swedish aid group providing support to Syrian refugees entering Europe. I was very proud of them for taking that action.
I know something about refugees, having worked in my 20s in India with Tibetan refugees. That was in the mid-’60s, just after the Dalai Lama fled for his life and crossed the border into India in 1959, seeking refuge. 100,000 Tibetans, who also fled and followed him, began their life as refugees. They were poorly clothed, ill-fed and suffered from diseases in India that they had never encountered in their native Tibet.
They mourned for the friends, the family members and the life they left behind. The aid workers who assisted them gave every ounce of their energy, were exhausted and were deeply moved by the plight of the refugees. It affected me deeply and changed the course of my life.
Anyone who has not been a refugee, or who has not worked closely with refugees, will find it hard to understand how desperately they need both physical and emotional support. Unlike immigrants, who make a choice to leave their place of origin to find opportunity and freedom in another country, refugees are in flight. They are fleeing from war zones, from civil war, invasion and extreme oppression. They fear for their very lives and the lives of their children. They leave everything they have ever known behind them.
When we think about refugees today, we might remember that flight and refugees are at the heart of three of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Torah, the Bible and the Quran all tell the moving story of Moses and the Israelites in flight from bitter slavery in Egypt to wander as refugees in the desert.
I am trying to keep those early faith journeys in mind when, in the face of terrorist attacks and potential danger, we consider how to deal with refugees from the Middle East. When we look at that situation from a legal and security perspective, I want to be sure to also consider it from a moral perspective.
My nephew and his girlfriend, being just two individuals in Greece trying to help out, may not have made a very big difference. But they did their part. Instead of reacting to the problems associated with Syrian refugees, they responded to the problems. There is a huge difference.
When we react to something, it is usually because it has caught us off guard, and it often calls forth fear. It has been my experience that we are not our best selves when we act out of fear. When we respond to something, it is because it calls forth empathy and compassion. It has been my experience that we are our best selves when we act out of love.
Abraham Lincoln eloquently captured this distinction when he said in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
My nephew and his girlfriend were touched by the better angels of their nature. My hope is that this may be true for all of us.