War. Environmental crisis. Famine. Injustice. Racism. Xenophobia. These are some of the factors that lead to human migration and cause individuals and families to seek refuge away from home ± to become refugees. Since the emergence of COVID-19 and the global pandemic, we have overlooked what is happening in various parts of the world, such as Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia. We began to notice things other than COVID-19 with the Afghanistan crisis and the rapid pull out of American troops and the quick reassertion of the Taliban. We really began to notice things with the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the massive migration of millions of Ukrainians. COVID-19 is not the story anymore. We return once again to the global refugee crisis; and as we were once gripped by the Syrian crisis, we now refocus on the tragic plight of millions of people today.
The effect of COVID-19 was devastating for all of us. Two years ago, we didn’t know what was happening, and we were afraid. We were isolated, fearful and crestfallen. As the pandemic wore on, we experienced disappointment after disappointment. We had to pivot into a new reality and a new way of relating. That was our reality. The reality for refugees was of an even greater magnitude. Not only did they fear for their lives from COVID-19 like the rest of us, but with the suspension of global travel, families were left stateless and languishing in refugee camps. Because of war and drought, many had to migrate from home in the midst of the pandemic. For some people, COVID-19 was the least of their troubles; more pressing was food, water and an escape from gunfire.
Through the Anglican-United Refugee Alliance (AURA), a Pakistani family (we are not revealing their full identity for their safety’s sake) was sponsored by a coalition of churches in Toronto: St. Anne, Epiphany and St. Mark, and Redeemer Lutheran. The family arrived in Canada in February, but their journey from Pakistan was an eight-year one. The family are Christian and fled religious persecution. The coalition learned of them in 2018 while they were in Malaysia looking for help finding a country to grant them permanent resident status. The father has a master’s degree in math and has taught, worked as an accountant and managed several non-profit projects. The mother has an arts degree and worked as an elementary teacher and an office worker before raising a family. In Malaysia, they were living and working under the radar. They were assisted by an Anglican church where David Reed, a professor emeritus at Wycliff College, learned about them while conducting a seminar in Malaysia. He contacted Bishop Jenny Andison, a former student of his, and she asked whether the coalition of churches could help. They could, but the family’s arrival in Canada in 2020 was delayed by COVID-19. They had to put their whole lives on hold for another two years.
For You have been a defense for the helpless,
A defense for the needy in his distress,
A refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat;
For the breath of the ruthless
Is like a rainstorm against a wall.
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19: 33-34
Bishop Andrew Asbil has declared Sunday, May 15 as Refugee Sunday in the diocese. AURA and the diocese are providing resources, prayers, litanies for liturgies, as well as primers on developing church refugee groups and sponsoring refugees. AURA has produced three video interviews with refugees that can be used in the liturgy or as presentations at church advisory board and outreach events.
For many of us, COVID-19 had surprising spiritual benefits: we found refuge in God ± peace and comfort in God’s presence. Many of us started to focus on what we would do with the rest of our lives. We realized anew that time is precious and all we have is right now. How do we make the most of what we have? How can we serve God and each other in time of pandemic? Can we serve the foreigner, the refugee, the alien?
One simple, fun, fulfilling thing to do is to observe Refugee Sunday; and think about organizing your church community to sponsor refugees. As was recently pointed out: you’re saving lives. Look at your smile and feel your heart glow when you watch your family come through the arrival gate at Pearson airport. To start, simply go to www.auraforrefugees.org or Google “AURA for Refugees” for links to materials and resources. Join the Diocesan Refugee Network by visiting the “Welcoming Refugees” section on the diocese’s website, www.toronto.anglican.ca. Be a part of a community of likeminded Christians championing justice for refugees.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Drakeford is an AURA board member and an honorary assistant at St. Anne, Toronto, where he is involved in refugee work.