I was a stranger and you invited me in
The co-ordinator of a new joint faiths project on refugees explains the work they do and the situation facing refugees in Scotland.
When Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament in 2014 he said: ‘We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!’
And yet since the year 2000 the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe estimates more than 20,000 lives had been lost on the sea crossing. And despite the repeated warnings and pleadings of churches and of refugees themselves, the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in Europe grew in 2015. We witness today the largest refugee emergency in Europe since the end of the Second World War, and with no sign of it ending. The predicament for refugees in camps and other places in and around Syria – and the other troubled places of the world, is less well reported than what happens in Europe, and these places too are remembered in our prayers even if we know less about them.
It is in this context that last autumn a new joint faiths project was set up: Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees. It is supported by the Scottish Catholic Bishops Conference (through the Justice and Peace Commission), the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church and other Christian denominations as well as Action of Churches Together in Scotland, Interfaith Scotland, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the Muslim Council of Scotland.
We are from different faith traditions; we are deliberately working together as a symbol of our shared humanity. Our differences are small compared with our common desire to help restore that dignity and fullness of life which we believe is at the heart of God’s plan for us all. As Christians we bring a particular story of Syria and Iraq, the cradle of our faith, and now where in places it is dangerous to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jewish people have their own stories of exodus and holocaust, they know the importance of being granted sanctuary from terror, and many take seriously their obligation to offer sanctuary to those in need today. Muslims bring their own experience – of a growing normalisation of Islamophobia, and where even in the supposedly civilised world they are frequently collectively mocked, patronised and blamed for the actions of others.
Part of the work of Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees is to encourage and support, and where necessary challenge, faith groups in Scotland, to try to get a sense of co-ordinated action, so through our response we all pull in the same direction.
At a local level across Scotland many local authorities are working with the Home Office to welcome Syrian families. David Cameron promised in September to take up to 20,000 vulnerable Syrian people from refugee camps between 2015 and 2020. Scotland has already welcomed around 600 people. The Scottish Government expect that Scotland will receive between 2,000 and 3,000 by 2020.
In some places, like Moray and East Lothian, local community groups have been set up – ordinary citizens setting up meetings and working out how they can best respond. In other places, like Fife, the existing Migrants Forum has been asked to take the lead in liaison and offering practical support. In Aberdeenshire and Midlothian it is the local authority which is convening a stakeholder group of statutory agencies and voluntary groups to co-ordinate a local welcome. In many places church groups have been at the heart of the local response – offering volunteers for befriending or English language classes, donating Middle Eastern food to the foodbanks so there are some familiar tastes for people when they arrive, to giving vouchers for shoe shops so the kids can get the right kind of shoes for school.
In Glasgow the city has been a dispersal centre for asylum seekers for around 18 years. There are around 3,500 asylum seekers living in the city at the moment, more than double any other local authority area in the UK.
Unlike the Syrian families recently arrived, asylum seekers have no right to work, are given restricted and limited financial support through the Azure Card, and are engaged in the legal process of an asylum claim. The fear of dawn raids, detention and destitution is very real. Recent allegations about mistreatment by the company sub-contracted to manage their housing have triggered calls for an independent inquiry.
Many charity and faith based projects work in the city, and have done so for many years. The Scottish Refugee Council offers advice and support to refugees, and the Refugee Survival Trust is able to make emergency grants to destitute asylum seekers. Integration Networks in different parts of the city work on community development initiatives. Interfaith Glasgow runs a Weekend Club project for asylum seekers to meet one another and eat together. Many of these projects are short of cash and in need of volunteers. Supporting Glasgow’s asylum seekers should be a concern for everyone in Scotland, not just Glaswegians.
In Europe, in the Mediterranean, and in the countries around Syria – and those other regions of the world where there is unrest and violence – many charities and Governmental agencies are working to relieve humanitarian suffering. In Calais, Secours Catholique organise some of the efforts in the camps, and across Europe – Italy, Malta, Greece, church programmes are in place offering practical and spiritual support.
I am frequently asked what individuals and congregations can do to help. It can really depend on where they live, but we can all think about offering time, donations, cash, prayers. They are all practical things we can offer to help. We can also make sure that we use our power to inform and influence, whether that is our friends in the café or the pub or on social media, politicians, the press, in church meetings. Let us make sure that the rhetoric which is deployed when discussing refugee issues stays respectful of the individuals, and that people are looking for ways to help rather than ways to blame. Supporting anti-racism initiatives such as the recent march and rally in Glasgow on 19th March is a powerful symbol of what kind of society we want to be part of. Equally, we have to be watchful against casual racism and the acceptable face of xenophobia. In the church there are those who fear the change that welcoming the stranger might bring. But we are taught to put the needs of others before our own. In his encyclical for the Great Lent 2016, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, Aphrem II, wrote:
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ becomes a foreigner in the world by his incarnation. By becoming human, Jesus Christ has a new experience in a world strange to his divinity where He is with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The world, in which He was incarnated, refused Him: ‘He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him.’ (John 1: 11).
The Bible in general, and the New Testament in particular, teaches us to host strangers and to show philanthropy towards them. Doubtlessly, the stranger, refugee, immigrant and the internally displaced need more care than others since their suffering is great and their daily needs surpass their capabilities. Consequently, they are among those who need greater care because they are living under severe conditions and they are exposed to many dangers outside their villages, cities and countries.
The church knows no limitation to charity and love: Jesus Christ taught us that ‘no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15: 13). The church cares without discrimination, and teaches how to serve strangers and to host them. Since the beginning of Christianity, church leaders designated special hostels to host strangers. They selected some brethren to hold this responsibility to host guests and strangers, following the words of our heavenly teacher: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’
David Bradwell is the Co-ordinator for Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees