Finally, here is the long-awaited third episode of podcast. The audience has been clamouring for the next instalment, the press has been calling, and time has been tight, but I have managed to finally bless my listeners with the sweet sound of my voice again 😉
As you listen, keep in mind that this episode is meant first to inform you of the situation, since it has become an important current event in the country where I live. Second, it is meant to raise questions that I believe we need to think about, especially those of us who claim to be Christians. I have tried to refrain from voicing any hard and fast opinions here, as I know this can be a controversial issue.
Notes and links for the information discussed in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post.
=== Podcast transcript ===
Podcast 3: Refugee Question
Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. Today is episode three, and we are going to talk about the Refugee crisis in Bosnia and how it affects us as believers.
The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.
“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer.
I often say that we are building a community where people can belong, believe in God, and become the people he has created them to be. It all starts with belonging. My personal path to where I am today began with a community that made me feel that I belong, that I had a place in their fellowship. That eventually gave me the tools that I needed to believe and become the person I am today. That’s why I believe that belonging is an essential part of becoming a believer and seeing meaningful life change.
There are lots of groups and ministries that are based on this principle. Alcoholics Anonymous, depression recovery, and many other kinds of mercy ministries are effective because of the community they create for people in need. These communities create a kind of social framework that helps lift people up out of the places they are in, so they can reform their lives.
When people fall into destructive lifestyles, they often find camaraderie there. There are often lots of other people who help them descend into places they otherwise wouldn’t want to go. And when people are finally able to recover, it is often because of the help they receive a community. Very few ever recover in isolation.
For you and me, in a very similar way, I think community is essential if we are serious about becoming the people we are created to be. Any kind of small group, men’s group, women’s Bible studies — they give us hope and focus us, and help us know that there are other people who care about us and want us to advance.
Today in Bosnia refugees have begun to show up on our doorstep. These are people who don’t belong anywhere. They’ve been driven from their homes and literally have no place to call home, and they’ve started to show up in great numbers in the country where I live now. We often think of the refugee crisis as something akin to serving the poor in the places where we live. It’s a very complex thing.
Driving back from meeting
In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have the capital city of Sarajevo, where I lived for a total of 7 years altogether, and then as you go west, towards the border of Croatia and European Union, the only big city you come through is Mostar, where I live right now. Right now, I’m driving back from Sarajevo to Mostar. There’s two small towns you go through to Mostar, I’m in that last stretch before you get to Mostar. It’s an incredibly beautiful, striking drive, especially when the sun is out.
You have a river that cuts through this mountainous area, and the road is down next to the river, so when you’re driving your way down in the middle of a valley, and the mountains go straight up on either side of you. The way the mountains are made up they look like sheets of rock going down diagonally into the water. It’s as if the sheets are almost on a 45 degree with the water, and they are sliding down into the water. It typifies Herzegovina and its distinct look and how it’s different from the rest of the country.
Bosnian refugee work
Refugees have started to come to Bosnia because they have nowhere else to go. They start in the Middle East, and their goal is to get to a place where they can lead productive, safe lives, unthreatened by conflict. So naturally, they go West. The nations to the east and the north are not really in a position to help them, and they have their own problems. They go west, they come through Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and many of them get caught there. They stay in camps there, funded by the Turkish or Greek or Jordan governments, and they are provided for, but they have to live in tents and temporary buildings. Their children don’t go to school, their lives sort of go on pause for the time that they’re there.
Then many hear of the locations of these camps, and they choose different routs, searching for better locations. They want to get to Germany, they want to get to France. Once they get to these countries, they’ll be accepted as refugees, or they’ll be able to apply for some kind of protected status, and they will be able to stay. But they get stopped at the borders of the European Union. Once they’re in, they’re in, but the EU doesn’t have to let them in.
So, they try different entry points, which has brought them finally to Bosnia. There are as many as 100 people showing up in Bosnia every day, from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and other countries across the Middle East. They’ve been stopped all across the borders, and so they have to stay in Bosnia. They’re at several different places. There’s a large hostel in Ilidza, there’s a bombed out building in Bihac, there’s tents set up by volunteers in the center of Sarajevo, there’s a refugee camp in Mostar. The response ranges from incredibly unorganized and chaotic, to organized and sophisticated in other places.
Here are some clarifications that may be helpful as we think about the refugee issue in the world.
- Refugee is a loaded word. It’s a politically charged word no matter how it is used. A refugee is someone who is justifiably seeking refuge from a government or other group, and is therefore seeking to permanently leave their home country and take up residence in a safer place. So if you accept that someone is a refugee then you are also accepting a couple of things:
- That the country they are leaving is unjustly persecuting that person.
- That person is not a criminal for trying to run away.
- They have the basic right to leave wherever they were living and seek refuge somewhere else.
- All of the people involved in this crisis are technically migrants — and many of the migrants are refugees. Some people are not refugees, because they are migrating for reasons that technically don’t qualify them as refugees. Basically, their home country is not in an all-out war.
- However, for the kurds from Turkey, for example, that are part of this huge group of migrants, they’ve always been persecuted by their own government. But Turkey is a legitimate, universally-recognized, functioning state, a member of NATO, and we can’t really say that people fleeing their country qualify as “refugees”. Saying that would imply that a member of NATO is mistreating its citizens, maybe that country is deserving of some type of sanctions, and so forth. It would be unsupportive of its government — a government that’s supposedly aligned with the West.
- So, the Kurdish factions of Turkey have taken their cause into their own hands, raising up their own leaders and creating their own institutions that fight for equality for their people in Turkey and the surrounding countries. In the United States, this would’ve been something like the NAACP, the Black Panther movement, the Nation of Islam, and other groups that rose up to fight for Black equality. But in Turkey, there is an obvious difference — these people are going for an independent Kurdish state as the end-goal for their fight. They want Kurdish equality, Kurdish autonomy, Kurdish independence — which means that they eventually would like to secede from the state of Turkey. They view this as their goal, as their right. Which raises a lot of questions — if these people are against their government, what’s the difference between them and a terrorist?
- But don’t they have reason to protest against their government — a government that has in the past outlawed the use of the Kurdish language? Don’t they have a right to protest against the suppression of their culture by a government where another ethnic group is clearly in the driver’s seat? And what about the history of crimes, deaths, even massacres committed against the Kurdish peoples over the past several centuries? The Kurdish people have a rich history of existence that goes back several centuries. However, In an attempt to deny their existence, the Turkish government categorized Kurds as “Mountain Turks” until 1991.
- So, what’s the verdict? Are these people terrorists? or are they legitimately oppressed minorities? By using the word refugee you would be choosing a side in this conflict — something none of us intend to do.
- As a Christian — and I think this is the question that most of us listening want to answer — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?
We’ve got some questions to answer as Americans. At least, that’s what the people at the Pew Research Center say. They do surveys, though, so they’re always saying that. Sir, would you mind answering a few questions? I never stop and answer. I guess I’m reluctant to give my opinion.
There’s an article on the Pew website about how people in the US are turning more negative toward refugees. The picture at the top is of a girl from Bhutan, sitting in college class in the US. The caption reads, “Her extended family was resettled in the area, as were hundreds of other refugees from Bhutan and Nepal in recent years.
In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat. The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.
After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people, first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. “The army took all the people from their houses,” a young refugee told me. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”
Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered to resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees.
Now, only about half of Americans (51%) say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while 43% say it does not. That qualifies as a controversial issue.
But what would be the best way to assist in this crisis? Would it be to resettle these people into a neighboring country where they would probably become an impoverished group again, never at home, and never provided for? Which nation would be in a position to support a group of people who have no means of support? Which nation would be able to place these people into a situation where they can work, support their families, and lead meaningful productive lives?
To date, 92,000 of the 108,000 total refugees from the situation in Bhutan have been resettled to the United States. Many of them own businesses, work in jobs, and send their children to school in communities across the United States. In the United states, refugees from places like Bhutan are often resettled by large faith-based charities like World Relief, which was Founded in 1944 as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Europe after World War II.
These are their values: The Example of Jesus as we serve those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, regardless of color, belief, or gender, as part of God’s plan to redeem, reconcile, and restore the world. We seek to follow Jesus by living holy, humble, and honest lives individually and corporately. The Local Church as a primary agent of bringing peace, justice, and love to a broken world.
There are Bhutanese people still in refugee camps, but most of them have been resettled to Western countries. Many were resettled by World Relief. And I think that’s where we’d like for them to be — in the hands of a group of people seeking to live out the “example of Jesus”, working to alleviate suffering because of a deep desire to see this world redeemed.
Middle East Refugees
In the Middle East, though, the numbers are different. Maybe because it’s such a high-profile struggle, maybe because of the stigma attached to accepting Muslim refugees, or maybe because of other factors, the number of people resettled to the United States has been unimpressive.
There are 6.1 million refugees from Syria.
Many in the US have remarked that these refugees should be taken in by neighboring countries. Well, they have.
Kuwait has taken 150,000
Iraq has taken 230,000 — even as it faces the remnants of ISIS.
The UAE have taken 242,000
One of the world’s poor nations, Sudan, has taken 100,000.
Jordan has taken 1.3 million
Lebanon has taken in 2.2 million
3.5 million have been taken in by the nation of Turkey.
This situation, unlike the situation in Bhutan, is one where the US hasn’t been one of the top nations extending help to those displaced. And as I said before, offering help has a lot of complex side effects. By accepting refugees into your country, you’re saying that it’s ok to call them refugees and give them refugee status. By doing that, you’re saying something about the place they came from. You’re saying it’s not treating its citizens properly.
But in the process, in the US, you’re also giving people like World Relief the chance to have an impact and an influence on people who have been driven from their homes. You’ve giving people who’ve been impoverished, persecuted, threatened, the chance to live a normal, productive life in a nation that can support them quite easily.
So far, seven years into the Syrian conflict, 16,000 of the 6.1 million refugees from Syrian have been resettled to the US.
So, back to that question I raised before — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?
Think about the question — it’s got two parts. The second part, wading into political arena, is what always stops people from doing things. We don’t want to be political, but we often don’t realize that by doing nothing we become political. We’re political because we are more concerned with the outer appearance of what we’re doing than we are with the act itself.
We need not be reminded — or maybe we do — of other situations in our world’s history. Inaction is action. Not to act is to act.
The question, then, ought to be, how can we do what we are supposed to do? There’s no second part of the question. I’m a Christian anyway, and this is not our home, anyway. Or at least, here we do not have a lasting home — we are looking for the home that is to come. We’re supposed to have an eternal perspective. What we’re supposed to do is the eternal question. Political conflicts are by nature, fleeting, temporary, short. The question that will stand the test of time is, did I do what I was meant to do? Regardless of the political questions involved.
So, whether you’re in Atlanta — where I was over 20 years ago — or in Bosnia — where I am now — there’s the question. Am I going to do what I’m meant to do? Am I going to try to serve this community? Am I going to support that person that needs my assistance? Am I going to go looking for people who need my help? Am I even aware of the help I can offer?
I hope this has given all of us plenty to think about.
Notes about the Kurdish people
Notes about attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in the US
Notes about refugees in Bhutan
Notes about World Relief