For the last month I have been helping out two or three evenings at a refugee centre. Whatever one reads in the news, the UK has taken in refugees, but I am not terribly sure that the Government is doing much beyond grudgingly taking those who have a claim to live here. The people I am working with have had their lives ripped apart by a civil war the ferociousness of which makes my blood run cold. I sometimes find myself wondering how easily this could happen in the UK? Of course, we hope that a settled civil society with a functioning democracy would never go in that direction, but talking with the people here gives me a real feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God’.
I’m not getting into the politics of this – except to say that two things surprise me: that the oil-rich Muslim countries to the south-east of Syria have taken almost none of their co-religionists as refugees; and that some of the richest countries in the world feel themselves unable to match the efforts made by poor countries like Lebanon and Jordan. That said, those countries, like Turkey, receive huge help from the richer countries – but I just wish we could avoid sounding as though helping these people was somehow a huge burden. I suppose a non-Christian attitude is to be expected of our governments, but for me, and for many who help, this is a fundamental aspect of being a Christian.
There is, for me, not much point going to church and professing my belief in God’s goodness and mercy, and giving thanks for it, unless I do something to help others made in his image when they need it most. We can’t all do all we’d like – there’s a living to made and a job to go to and things to see too, and when funds are tight, one can’t always give as much money as one would like – but giving something and doing something are what matters. Our Lord commended the widow’s mite for a reason. That story contains another truth which has become clear to me over the time I’ve been here. It is often those who can least afford it who give most by way of their time and proportion of their income. Some of those who work here of an evening are still looking for work, but see this as a chance to do their best as Christians. Talking with the strangers in our gate here has reminded all of us that whatever we are struggling with materially, we are hugely rich by comparison with them.
When I was first here, we had an influx of Syrian Orthodox Christians, and it was easier for me to relate to them than to the new influx, who are mostly Muslims, and mostly male. We’ve had a few cultural problems, or perhaps they are universal human problems? The young man who thought my backside a suitable place to rest his hand got my ‘death stare’, and a talking to from the supervisor; I wasn’t the first female helper to have this happen, but talking with the older men, who’ve been very helpful in getting the younger ones to behave, we get some insight into the problem – which is probably universal. A largish group of young men separated from female company and with no proper outlet for their natural instincts will find improper outlets. That’s no excuse, and they have responded well to being told that this is not being tolerated, but it is a reason. It’s not easy to see what can be done about this, and clearly the outbreaks in Germany and elsewhere earlier in the year are part of this phenomenon. It is very easy to be outraged, not least when it is your backside, but if these young men are going to live here with us, they have to adapt to our ways. The one problem with that is, having been in the city centre on a Friday and Saturday night, I’m not sure that the problem might not be that they are doing just that – copying the worst of the excesses of our ‘culture’.
We can provide these men with food, shelter, help and all sorts of assistance, but perhaps the biggest argument in favour of helping them closer to home is that exposure to some aspects of our society is not going to be helpful to them.