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Anger, Confusion & Compassion

Anger, Confusion & Compassion

Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Are we all done now?

It’s what we might say to a couple of toddlers screaming at each other when they can’t get the other to do what they want.

I’d like to scream this from the moral high ground for all to hear.  Sadly, the crowd up there is riled up like 1980’s Christmas shoppers chasing down Cabbage Patch Kids…so we’ll just leave that alone for now 🙂

But for those of us who are still interested in actually ‘talking’ about the issues we are facing with the Syrian refugee crisis before moving ahead…sit with me for a minute.  I’ll share my wonderings and I’d love to hear yours.

There’s at least a couple of readers who might react strongly to my call for a moment of reflection.  This is the critical moment they cry, no time to waste!  To this, I might remind you that the humanitarian crisis facing our world has been going on for well over 3 years now. It’s ok to pause for a second and consider our next steps.

My first exposure to the crisis in Syria came early on in 2011 through an Oxford University classmate, a Syrian, who was late in arriving for our course due to the government beginning to refuse citizens the ability to leave the country.  He narrowly made it out in time.

Over the next couple of years, I would follow along with news reports, trying to make sense of what was happening…both the surface reports and the actual players involved. There is a lot to consider, including a little bit of ownership on the part of Americans in this whole mess, but the unavoidable reality that has come out of this civil war is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our era. 

The absolute lowest version of humanity has been on full display.  Evil.  Not just bad things.  Evil things.  When we look evil in the face and still love, it is a powerful and beautiful thing (exhibit A: Antoine Leiris). But there is indeed evil that needs dealt with.

Unfortunately, evil doesn’t always come in the form of a single antagonist with a gun pointed, easily disposed of with a bigger gun. 

Evil often travels as a parasite on the underbelly of larger social and economic issues as it’s cover. If you take a shotgun to the parasite it can have devastating effects on the very people you are trying to rescue. 

Wisdom is in order.

The current mainstream debate seems focused in 2 camps;

Those not wanting any refugees to be accepted in the United States for security purposes and those who think it is a moral (and often specifically Christian) obligation to accept our global neighbors of need into our country.  One camp fixates on the risks, while the other camp speaks from moral conviction…some in that camp even declaring with bold courage that though risks exist, they are worth taking.

It’s this posturing, that paints the earlier picture mentioned of toddlers fighting.  The back and forth continues. Without additional dialogue, there will be no satisfying solution for our American nation struggling to determine how we should engage the global crisis before us.

A republican suggests applying a religious test to determine who will be allowed into our country and democrats (along with people from both sides of the aisle) predictably recoil at the suggestion. But then the highest ranking democrat in the land minimizes that position and counters by calling it political and likely to help recruitment for the enemy while demeaningly saying the others are afraid of refugee children and women.  The reality is…both sides are willfully ignoring the valid points of the others’ positions…presenting over-simplistic and political responses for their own purposes.

Let me share just a couple of issues to consider and I’ll conclude with my heart’s passion.

First, I love the compassion and love that so many people have displayed for refugees on the run from evil.  It is noble and good. 

May I gently suggest that as Americans we may bring a bit of naive pride along with our compassion? 

As a nation, we are yelling back and forth at each other over bringing in 10,000 refugees.  Over the past few years, we have resettled just less than 2,000 refugees.  Those 2,000 refugees represent approximately 0.05% of the global refugees from this humanitarian crisis.

Did you read that?  0-POINT-0-5-percent.

I appreciate the legitimate process of choosing whether to allow refugees in our country or not.  In that process, we would do well to remember that whichever decision our country makes, we are barely denting the larger global crisis taking place.

If we want to talk about engaging refugees and the serious socio-economic crises that come with it, we have to start by engaging and learning from countries already involved…primarily Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, then applying those lessons towards our society’s unique context.  In America we already have ongoing debate over the role of illegal immigrants in our work force.  We should give thought to what working status these refugees will hold…for their sake as much as ours (and especially if the number of refugees accelerates once systems are in place following the first 10,000 refugees admitted).

For instance, in the Syrian border city of Mafraq, Jordan that I visited, the total population of the city has nearly doubled from the influx of Syrian refugees.  Think of your own hometown where you work and live.  What issues would arise from it’s population rising quickly from refugees coming into your city? 

Am I overstating the case?  In that situation…perhaps a little.  It’s unlikely of course that one city alone would bear this burden in America, but it seems more honest to discuss the realities of issues that come along when significant efforts of helping are involved.

I wonder…do we believe that bringing refugees to America is actually the best solution to the humanitarian crisis at hand?  Allow me to mention a parallel issue for reference sake. 

Global poverty is a similar (though larger) issue to the refugee crisis.  Some would posit that mass immigration to places like America would help alleviate world poverty.  But a cursory review of statistics would challenge that. What we need are solutions for people in their own countries.

There seems to be, based on personal conversations and numerous media interviews with Syrian nationals, a vast majority of Syrians who would prefer to return to Syria as soon as the dangers are removed and opportunity returns for them to rebuild their homeland.  The point being…they LIKE Syria.  In many cases…Love it.  So the idea of living in American boroughs, while genuinely life saving in this moment of crisis, is hardly their ultimate dream. 

Wouldn’t Syrians be more excited to find a way to safely go home?

It’s obviously got huge barriers right now, but there are huge barriers in every direction.  Let’s be sure that we are pushing past the barriers in a direction that the victims truly want and need.

Secondly…and this is primarily for my Christian friends to consider…please be cognizant of appealing consistently when we are making demands of government, and that our moral indignation is reinforced with long term commitment.     

For instance…I hear many Christians demanding that the U.S. government receive these refugees under the conviction of Biblical mandate.  I wonder then how these same Christians would feel about our government taking on an official position of pacifism under Biblical mandate.  Would we hear the same calls to Biblical obedience?  If other Christians don’t agree with pacifism…are they labeled anti-Christian for believing in ‘Just-War’ theory?

Another parallel illustration:  There are many pro-lifers that advocate strongly for the survival of the fetus, but minimize the long-term ramifications, costs and struggles ahead for those actually involved.  I believe life begins at conception, but if I fight the ‘pro-life’ political agenda with no concern for the realities facing the new lives I claim to care for…well….the argument feels a little empty, as famously noted by Sister Joan Chittister.

I’m suggesting we run the same risk with our call to justice in taking additional refugees.  I think it’s a reasonable thing to do, but I also think we need to take account of what additional needs we are committing to care for moving into the future.  Needs not so dissimilar to those of infants born into a land without family or means of provision…education, housing, food, work, and community.  To some, it’s a ‘get them here and we’ll figure it out’.  To others, it’s a ‘if we don’t have the money (already trillions in debt), then we can’t afford to do it’. 

I have so many friends that I have deep respect for that are aghast at others’ suggestions to keep out war refugees.  I get it.  I soooo get it.  Especially when fear seems to be the main controlling dynamic.  After all, I have met some of these people…I have heard their stories and seen the truth of their pain in their eyes.  These are the men…not allowed to work, struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.  These are the families living in a fog…the world they knew suddenly decimated without warning.

To those so upset with others considering blocking refugees from entering America…I might ask why they are so angry.  I understand your frustration with others who seem to have less compassion than you, but the anger…I wonder what that reveals.

I’ve often heard it said that anger comes out of hurt.  We yell at family members or friends sometimes, because their words have hurt us and we feel the need to protect ourselves.

I wonder if we are sometimes actually mad at God for creating a world where this sort of evil can take place.  Evil happens…we see it…and when others aren’t ready to fight it in the same way we are, we are hurt and the frustration pours out.

But what if….What If…God is weeping with the broken.  What if God’s heart really is full of compassion for the least of these…kind towards the hurting. 

And, brace yourself…what if He’s not panicked.  What if, while saddened by the evil choices people have made, He is still steady.  What if He knows that His purposes will still be accomplished despite evil causing suffering in this world.

What if suffering is a part of freedom.  What if we are called to pray and in our lives bring God’s Kingdom here on this earth one person at a time and not expect a government ordinance to carry the day.

I say it often, but just as the Bible teaches that ‘perfect love drives out fear’…I think the opposite is also true…’perfect fear drives out love.’  My prayer is that all Americans, on both sides of this issue, would hold strongly to love as we engage each other and the world moving forward.

My heart hurts for the masses of Syrians and others in the world who have been driven from their lands.  Facing poverty, abandonment, disease and death. 

In response to this suffering, I was given the opportunity to go and visit with many of these refugees in Jordan along the Syrian border last year. 

I sat with Muslim Arabs who were utterly broken. 

I came to offer a mattress and pillow to an empty concrete room full of children sleeping with nothing more than a single UNHCR blanket per 4 children to keep them warm.  A blanket – barely covering 4 children – lying on concrete.

I sat with a family who, walking untold miles in effort to escape the war, watched one of their young children collapse to her death…unable to revive her and assuming malnourishment had claimed her life, they painfully and reluctantly left her body behind.  Hundreds of yards away…a young sibling looking back in sorrow and thinks she sees a movement.  They return and find that she is alive…barely.  Perhaps 8 years old…she will need carried whatever miles remain to the border.  To safety?  Perhaps.  But at least their death will be less likely from guns.

I looked into this girl’s eyes. I heard the family relay their story with a profoundly sad numbness that comes from those who have just walked through evil and survived.

A different family would share the details of how they were trapped in their village for nearly a year, unable to escape the militant sniper rifles that guarded all paths out.  I asked how they survived…where did they get food. 

zaatari-childWhen they began to pantomime scavenging for roots out of the earth…I choked hard on my humanity before the translator could even describe their perilous survival.

On leaving the outskirts of the Zaatari refugee camp, I played about with a couple of small boys…perhaps 9 or 10 years old.  Such big smiles.  So happy to have a visitor to muck about with.  Just running along side us as long as they could until we left. zaatari-goodbye

Getting into the van to leave, I felt a strange compulsion to take a picture of my hand.  I had just offered a piece of candy.  Offered a smile.  Offered my arms and hands to them.  Mussed the hair of this child living in a world he had nothing to do with creating. 

In that moment a holy silence covered my spirit. 

There was energy still pulsating in my hands as I looked down.

And I was sure I had just touched the heart of God.

I would go on to meet many Muslim Arabs in their tents and humble concrete dwellings. 

They were utterly broken.

And yet…

They welcomed me in and offered me all they had. 

A cup of tea and their presence.

And it mattered.

And it was beautiful.



I’m a Christian.  An American Christian.

Said more specifically…I’m a follower of Jesus.

I have looked into the face of suffering and my heart is broken for the evil that humanity is capable of.

As so…I’m inclined to welcome refugees to our country and offer them whatever help I feel personally equipped to offer.

I’m also inclined to let others weigh in on what they feel comfortable taking on, without calling their conviction of faith into doubt over it.

When we face a global crisis of this magnitude, our minds are bluntly confronted with the levels of serious suffering being faced by humankind. 

In these critical moments of struggle, let me encourage us all to first take off our Messiah-complex superhero capes if we have one on.  Next, to turn our questions of the heart and mind back towards a God big enough to handle them all.  And in the meantime…let’s love others…the same way you would want someone to love you if you were in their circumstances.

Perhaps the Lord’s prayer had it right…

Our Father who art in heaven

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, the power

and the glory, for ever and ever.


About Jeff Blackburn

Jeff Blackburn is a Spiritual Coach and passionate Truth-Seeker. An alumnus of Oxford University, Jeff is someone who advocates for Freedom and Fullness of Life for All. He believes Jesus offers good news for people everywhere today…not just eternity. Jeff is the Executive Director of Fearless Questions, Inc. and has spent the past 20 years working with people searching for God.