This year over One Million Refugees have been on the move throughout Europe. This became a personal story for me in September when we flew to Eastern Europe to begin a cruise along the Danube River.
We landed in Budapest, Hungary on the very day that they closed their main train station in order to keep out the thousands of refugees who were moving through their country. We saw first-hand the mothers and fathers and children who were risking everything in order to reach Western Europe where they would be safe and free.
We learned that this is the largest movement of refugees that the world has known since the end of WWII in 1945…70 years ago.
My first encounter with refugees was when I was a young girl in Chicago. There were several children who came to my school that spoke no English. They were of Polish and German descent. The term we used for them as the time was not “refugees” but DP’s or ”Displaced Persons.”
They arrived as strangers in our midst. They spoke languages I didn’t know, and the foods they ate had unusual tastes and smells.
Looking back, I believe those new kids in my class must have felt alone and afraid. Fortunately, they landed in Catholic schools where the nuns “mothered them.” We were taught to welcome them to our school and to help them feel at home in our parish and neighborhood. Within no time, they became our friends.
It helped tremendously that many of the sisters in my school spoke Polish and German. They could speak to the newcomers in their native tongue.
They taught us not to fear the newcomers and especially not to make fun of them because they were different. We were all God’s children. God loved us all.
We all played games together in the school yard and also enjoyed special treats like cake and candy on our birthdays and holidays. We looked for similarities, not differences.
The refugees in our midst became our classmates and our friends. But why did they come to our shores?
During World War II…millions of people were killed and others were wounded or displaced. The numbers are staggering.
Statistics vary, but most agree that over 70 million people were killed during WWII. Well over 20 million were military deaths. The rest were civilian casualties. And that doesn’t count those who were severely injured or whose homes were destroyed.
After the war, people from Western Europe became refugees and fled to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries willing to take them in. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, many found themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain which would remain in place for several decades.
Why do I bring all this up on Christmas morning? Because now there are upwards of a million people on the move, and we cannot ignore them. We have a choice. We can reach out to them with love and compassion and help them find safe havens. Or, we can fear them and even mock them for being undesirables, and close the borders of our hearts to keep them out.
I recall the lessons I learned from the good Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who were my teachers. They encouraged us to reach out to strangers with love and compassion. We were told to always help those in need, and to welcome the stranger. They taught us how to help refugee children and their families make a new life for in America. And if the newcomers in our neighborhood caused any trouble, they would have to answer to the nuns. Believe me, no one wanted to cross them!
The sisters also taught us that when Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be counted in the census that they thought it would be a simple journey. Perhaps they would be gone only a matter of days. It might only be a week or so until they would be back home again.
But after they got to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born, events took a turn that no one expected. King Herod had heard rumors that a new King of Israel had just been born. He felt threatened by this news.
By the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, Herod had put out an order that all the Jewish boys under the age of two were to be killed. This would take care of any rivals for his throne.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said:
“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:13-15)
Can you even imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt when they got this news? They could not return home, but would have to flee for their lives in order to protect their son.
Isn’t that the plight of every refugee? They have to leave all behind because it would not be safe for them to return home.
Would the Egyptians would give them shelter until it was safe for them to return home? You have to remember that the Israelites and Egyptians were not exactly friendly. In fact, they were often enemies who were at war with one another.
I wonder if when Mary and Joseph would have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt if they would have had to pass a background check.
Can you imagine them going up to a border crossing station and being asked:
“Passports please?” “We don’t have any.”
“Why do you want to enter our land?” And their response: “Because the Lord told us to flee to your country because our son’s life was in danger.”
What if they would have been turned away?
A friend of mine sent the following poem which was written by St. John of the Cross. It will help us to understand the significance of Mary and Joseph and Jesus being refugees.
St. John the Divine said to think of the Virgin as walking towards you on the road. She is pregnant with the holy and says, “I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”
Would you let her in? She is bearing the Christ Child…the Savior of the World. And if you do…
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Do you have room in the inn of your heart to welcome in the stranger… because if you do, it will be as if you are welcoming the Christ Child.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we have the scene of the Last Judgement, where people are separated into two groups: those who welcomed Christ and those who did not. Those gathered asked how they were to know if Christ was in their midst. Here is the response.
I was hungry and you fed me.
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.
I was homeless and you gave me a room.
I was shivering and you gave me clothes.
I was sick and you stopped to visit.
I was in prison and you came to me.
I am telling you solemnly…whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me. (Mt. 25)
God’s message is clear! But we want to put qualifiers on it.
The overwhelming majority of refugees are good people and they are only asking for a chance to begin again after losing everything.
For those few who might have terrorist motives, I trust that our government can put checks and balances in place to weed them out.
Refugees go through a lengthy process to enter this country. Remember, they are not all thugs as some would have us believe.
In fact, many refugees are highly educated. They and their children have much to contribute to our country. A few of them could turn out to be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs.
Recently it has been pointed out that Steve Jobs’ father was a migrant from Syria. He came to this country and his son grew up to become the co-founder of Apple, one of the most successful start-up companies ever.
Who among us doesn’t have an Apple product…and iPhone, iPad, Computer or Television set. And I bet there are at least a few of us who have an Apple product on our Christmas wish list this year.
Perhaps the most famous immigrant to this country is Albert Einstein. He was born in Germany and at a young age became of one the leading astro-physicists in the world. He will go down in history for introducing us to his “Theory of Relativity.”
In the early 1930’s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, he knew that he would have to leave his country. If not, he would be imprisoned or put to death because he was Jewish. He fled for his life because Hitler had a plan to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth, and he would certainly be targeted because he was famous.
Einstein accepted an offer from Princeton University to continue his scientific work there, and he became an outstanding American citizen. One cannot even imagine what our country or the scientific world would have been like if he had not found refuge in our country.
It is important to realize that every immigrant has the opportunity to make significant contributions to our country and to the world if they are given a chance. Of course there may be some bad apples in the mix, but with due diligence we can limit their impact on our society.
Let us remember that it has been the waves of immigrants who have come to our shores that have made our country the great nation that it is today.
So on this Christmas morning, I pray that we can open our hearts and our minds so that we can reach out to the refugees who might come to our shores. Who knows? We might even be welcoming the next Einstein or Steve Jobs.
But more importantly, we will be welcoming strangers in Christ’s name. For that is the message of Christmas. Let every heart prepare him room.