Podcast episode 3: The Refugee Question in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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.

Enjoy.

=== 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.

Introduction

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.

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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.

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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.

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Refugee clarifications

Here are some clarifications that may be helpful as we think about the refugee issue in the world.

  1. 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:
    1. That the country they are leaving is unjustly persecuting that person.
    2. That person is not a criminal for trying to run away.
    3. They have the basic right to leave wherever they were living and seek refuge somewhere else.
  2. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. 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?
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  3. 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?

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American attitudes

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.

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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.

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The Question

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.

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Notes about the Kurdish people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurds#Antiquity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_of_Kurdish_people_in_Turkey#Issues

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey#Demographics

Notes about attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in the US

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/03/the-number-of-refugees-admitted-to-the-u-s-has-fallen-especially-among-muslims/

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/immigration-attitudes/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/24/republicans-turn-more-negative-toward-refugees-as-number-admitted-to-u-s-plummets/

Notes about refugees in Bhutan

https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Notes about World Relief

https://www.worldrelief.org/values

It doesn’t matter whom you vote for: Earthly leaders and the heavenly leader

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. – John 10:11

  

Scripture refers to people as sheep over 400 times. Why?

Sheep are hopelessly dumb; there is no other way to describe them. Unlike dogs or cats, they will wander and lose their way. Even when they are found, they may not follow their shepherd unless they are scared into doing so by a dog. At times, the shepherd must catch them, tie them up, and carry them back to their pasture. They will wander without direction, oblivious of their circumstances, until they starve and die, or are killed by a predator. 

And yet this is one of scripture’s favorite word pictures for people. There are many implications. People are hopeless without a shepherd. People are oblivious of their surroundings. People are unaware of how they hurt themselves. 

But there is one more implication that is especially valuable in this time: there is but one Good Shepherd. All others will disappoint. No other shepherd has the heart of Jesus, who lays down his life for the edification of stupid, wayward animals. 

Inject that insight into the circumstances of today. The American people will soon choose a new President. This is the choosing of a new earthly shepherd, a new earthly leader. To the top of the heap have risen characters whose pasts are checkered, to put it kindly. 

No one in this field has clearly demonstrated a desire to lead the American people that does not also include an obvious desire for their own profit and gain.  Maybe this is something we all instinctively know, but it is worth noting.

There is no perfect candidate, because there never will be one. The only leader who ever led from a truly selfless motivation already came, 2,000 years ago. And if we think that we can find a similar leader today, then we are sadly mistaken. 

If this is true, then, in fulfilling our civic duty we would all do good to recognize that all leaders are broken in some way. While we must still debate the differences between the candidates and discern the best choice for ourselves, it is helpful to be mindful that we are ultimately still comparing one broken person to another. None is perfect, and there is not one choice that is more “spiritual” than another. We are free to choose. 

However, while we are free to chose, we are not to judge the spirituality of another voter based on their choice for an elected office. It doesn’t make sense to assume that a person’s opinion of one broken candidate is indicative of their standing with God. All are broken, and all are capable of good things only through the grace that God gives. 

Lastly, it is good to step back from this whole process and recognize our own brokenness. We are all sheep, in need of a Good Shepherd. 

A sheep’s problem isn’t that it acts sometimes like a sheep, overeating in its own pasture and wandering off too far — its problem is that it is a sheep, and from that it will never escape without the guidance of a shepherd. And unless we recognize that we are the same, we deceive ourselves. 

We Do Not Have To Be Right

IMG_3695
My 3-year-old daughter, ready for battle.

In order to understand my world you need to meet my kids.

I have a son, aged 6 years, and a daughter, aged 3. About once a day, I hear something from my son that I usually never believe. Sometimes he screams it at me, sometimes he says it while crying, and sometimes he is just slightly upset.

It usually goes something like, “Daddy, Hannah is hurting me!”

There are many other versions. “Dad, Hannah is not being fair.” “Dad, you need to tell Hannah to give me that toy.”

Sometimes, there is …violence. It’s usually me saying, “Hannah, did you hit Tyler? Why?” And her reply is usually, “Tyler took my toy.”

In this situation, I almost always take issue with my son, as I remember my father did with me when I was young. I think the reason why is probably obvious to most adults.

Here it is: my son is 6. My daughter is 3. That’s it. That’s the reason.

My son, at 6 years old, highly intelligent for his age, of slightly above average size for his age, is perfectly capable of resolving most cases of sibling rivalry in our home. His sister, at 3 years old, is simply not.

The answer, as I still tell him almost every day, is usually very simple. Just walk away. Give her the toy. Be nice. You are stronger than her. She doesn’t understand yet. You do.

Is it really important that I step in and mediate the discussion between my 6-year-old and my 3-year-old and decide who should really play with the toy, or who should eat the banana, or who should be able to do whatever they wanted to do before someone started crying? No. The winner of conflict is not important. I don’t want my son to think that it is; I want him to learn that his sister’s feelings are infinitely more important than anything they were fighting over.

Now, the truth is that he doesn’t really understand. He won’t really understand the importance of choosing peace over conflict until he is much older. But he understands enough to diffuse most of the situations he faces with his sister right now.

Do we ever really learn?

The lesson that my son is trying to learn is one that never really goes away. There are times throughout life, even as adults, when we have the opportunity to choose peace over conflict.

Someone cuts us off in traffic. Someone cuts in front of us at the grocery store. A coworker is inconsiderate of our needs or desires. We get left out of a night out with friends. We get made fun of at the water cooler at work.

I could go on, but I think the picture is clear: part of being an adult is being able to choose peace over conflict. There are a multitude of situations where this kind of decision is necessary.

But there is something even better, and more difficult, that we must learn as adults.

It’s not just about peace.

At this point, I believe choosing to simply end the conflict before it escalates is about all that my 6-year-old son can grasp on his own. But the peace is not a real peace — it is simply an end to violence. There is no understanding, no clear declaration, “Now, in this situation, daughter, you were wrong. Son, you were correct…” The parties involved don’t understand each other more clearly. They don’t resolve to work together in the future. They just know that a third party, their father, is forcing them to end their conflict.

One day — probably as an adult — my son will learn not just the value of mere peace, but also the value of true reconciliation.

That which sets us apart

…therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:7-8)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

As a Christian, I would not say that we are better than others. We are not. The thing we ought to know, because of our faith, is that we aren’t better. The thing we ought to know is that we are in fact worse than we could have imagined.

And in the midst of our fallen, broken human nature, we have one truth that ought to hold us afloat in the midst of conflict: we are forgiven. Because we have been forgiven much, we are free to forgive others.

But that’s only one side of it, because the power to forgive implies that we are the ones who have been offended. We are not only free to forgive — we are also free to admit the truth when we are wrong and seek the forgiveness of others.

That’s a truly adult thing to do, and one that we usually only truly appreciate far, far into our adulthood. This is what sets us apart: not the ability to do right, but the ability to seek reconciliation when we haven’t.

This is our war.

Oh, if this was just about personal relationships, who spilt the milk and who kissed who, it would still be so simple. But there is so much more to this. What some might say sounds like a happy-go-lucky, touchy-feely gospel is actually the greatest battle we fight as lovers of our Savior, Jesus.

We get to bring reconciliation into this world. We get to fight against the comfort-loving, tit-for-tat status quo of our society with truth that will change people from the inside out. We do not have to be right — we get to be stronger, admit the brokenness of our society, and promote peace, justice for the downtrodden, and true reconciliation.

I believe the time has come when we — when I — can no longer settle for comfort, for the status quo. There is something greater. There is something greater in all my relationships, in all my conflicts, and in all the messed up brokenness that I am met with every day, in my life and in the lives of others. It is the all-encompassing, profound, deep, counter-cultural peace of Jesus.