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Obstacles in the way of neighbourly welcome

28 October 2016

Sarah Teather draws on the Bible for a forgotten insight into the blessing that can come from accepting refugees

IN JESUS’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the lawyer poses a ques­tion: “Who is my neighbour?” I often think that Jesus does not answer the question in these sorts of encounters, and his capacity to get away with that is something that, as a former politician, I can only marvel at.

Not only does he not answer it, but, more than that, Luke’s very framing of the encounter makes it clear that the question itself was problematic. The lawyer was not seeking the truth, but trying to justify himself. He was being a smart alec, seeking to test Jesus out. But Jesus seems to turn the question on its head.

The question who does and does not deserve our resources is a question that haunts public dis­course in respect of migration and refugees.

As the crisis in response to the refugees arriving in Europe — and I do usually refer to it as a crisis about refugees, not a “refugee crisis” — reached its noisiest point this time last year, there were frenetic at­­tempts to choose and select, divide, and label, so as to avoid any duty or obligation to those arriving in need. Were they economic migrants or refugees? Syrian refugees, yes; but Africans?

Then Theresa May, at that point Home Secretary, sought to divide those we chose to resettle from the camps bordering Syria to those who sought to gain entry under their own steam. She suggested that asylum-seekers were queue-jumping, or chancing it. They should wait in line. It is a world-view that is framed by a model of scarcity: our scarce resources, their extreme need.

The Hebrew word for neigh­bour is reh, which literally means “another”, “close by”, as you would expect. But it can also mean “friend”. Indeed, the word implies some level of reciprocity to the relationship. It is not quite as simple as just being the object of a duty.

But there is something else more interesting to me. The same word is used to describe Moses meeting and talking to God in the tent in Exodus, where it says “He spoke to him as you would a friend.” The same word gets used to describe basic rules that govern social inter­actions between people in early Jewish society, but also to describe a sacred meeting face to face with the source of life.


AFTER leaving Parliament, and before joining the UK office of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), I spent some months with its international office as a kind of itinerant member of the advocacy team. It meant that I met a lot of teams in the field, and visited some of the key pressure-points across Europe.

I walked with groups of refugees across the border from Greece to Macedonia, on the route that so many were using to cross Europe. It was unlike any other experience I have had. People had such a sense of purpose that it was hard not to be swept up in it. I had learnt a few phrases of Arabic, although enough for only introductions and broken conversation. But it was enough to catch glimpses of people’s lives.

There was the young man who had carried his wounded brother for most of the journey: he had lost his legs in a bomb blast in Syria. His eyes were red with tiredness, but on he went. And the little girl, aged about nine, who shared my first name, all her belongings in a yellow carrier bag. They are just fragments, but they are etched on my memory.

The risk, though, is that images of Syrian refugees dominate so much that we forget that they are not the only refugees on the move. Iraqis and Afghans were also significantly represented in those knocking at Europe’s door last year. There are also hidden refugee con­flicts that we see less of: Burundi, South Sudan, the Central African Republic.

There are also many West Africans, too, who perhaps first migrated to Libya for work, but then were forced to leave when Libya collapsed. In the chaos that followed our military intervention in Libya, many were imprisoned and tor­tured, and so, in desperation, they made the dangerous journey over­seas to south Italy. There were Eritreans fleeing forced conscription and human-rights abuses, too.


IN THE UK, we receive asylum applications from all of the above, and more besides — DRC, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, to name but a few. Images of where an acceptable refugee comes from clouds their ability to get a fair hearing, par­ticularly in the UK, where public discourse is so notoriously hostile.

Images of the scale also mask the ability to get a fair hearing. The sudden influx of people to Europe last year was like nothing we have seen for decades, but it was still as nothing compared with the num­­bers of refugees accepted by Lebanon and Turkey from Syria, or Uganda from South Sudan.

Most of those who are fleeing conflict seek help first from their near neighbours. The UK received just 37,000 asylum applicants last year. Compare that with one-and-a-quarter million in Germany, for example. It is a drop in the ocean.


THE names for undeserved neediness — describing people as “bogus”, for example — also get in the way of providing a neighbourly welcome. But in Britain, as if our public discourse were not toxic enough, the Government also goes one step further, and actively builds walls to stop people from helping one another.

At JRS UK, we have a special ministry to work for those who are detained or made destitute as a result of government policy. By destitute, I mean forbidden from working, or claiming benefits, now even forbidden from lodging with friends who rent accommodation, for fear of falling foul of the right-to-rent rules. We have accompanied people over the past few years who have been kept in detention for years, and others who go in and out of detention. The impact on their mental health is significant.

We are mindful that the names used can build walls; so we refer to refugees who seek our help not as a “customer”, or “client”, but as a “friend”. And we actively seek to get to know people, to know them by name. At our day centre, we talk to people about their Home Office case, but we also talk about other things, such as their children, the news, politics, football.

Accompanying people in this way, we learn the detail of what it is to live in the shadows: to have to move from friend to friend, hoping not to outstay a welcome, or to spend the night in the all-night McDonald’s, or on night buses. We speak to one another as a friend, as in the line from Exodus.

There is a certain cost in this. It means that we are emotionally engaged with the story: the ups and downs of the Home Office saga, the failures of the lawyer, the failing health that complicates the picture.

Friends and neighbours do things for one another: it is reciprocal, not a one-sided duty. The contribution of refugee-volunteers themselves is like an engine that drives our work, an energy unleashed in the building of skills untapped and joy unmined. Their generosity is the glue in the relationships in the building. They are neighbours to us, and to other refugees whom they would never have met had they not journeyed, or had they chosen to keep their gifts hidden or unshared.


I WANT to return to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is the surprising stranger who brings life?

The surprising stranger may, as in the parable, be a foreigner, the hated Samaritan, whose very name evokes disdain. The neighbour may be vulnerable, thirsty, alone — and yet still be where we find the God of life. It may be the one whom we cannot accept help from, because we have built walls of his image, and framed it with the names we give him. These are frames that deflect the light inside us and the light which we seek — the intimacy with God that we long for, seeking him.

For is not “neighbour”, as I found in my hunt through the Hebrew text, not just a word for our duties, but the possibility of a sacred meeting, face to face: a neighbour, friend, meeting the Lord of life?

If we frame our relationship with refugees only in images of their need and our scarce resources, we miss something important. But if we approach them as friends, we find that their truth, and ours, is much richer.


Sarah Teather was an MP for 12 years, and served as Minister for Children and Families. She is now director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK. This is an extract from a lecture given at St Martin-in-the-Fields in the series “Who is my neighbour?” (www.smitf.org). For a podcast of the full lecture visit www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/podcasts.

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