​Refugees: The Strangers Among Us

, CFRE, Director, Philanthropic Service for Institutions, Silver Spring, Maryland

Whenever I say to people, “I’m a refugee,” I get a standard response — “Yeah, we’re all refugees on this earth.” I then repeat, “I’m a refugee, a real, genuine one,” and that generates more interesting responses such as, “You don’t look like one,” or, “How come you don’t have an accent?” or, more likely, “I thought you had an accent!”

Yes, I am a genuine refugee. Communist takeover in Estonia, the land of my birth, impelled my father to pick up his family and flee in the middle of the night. Because he was the conference president for the Estonian Seventh-day Adventist Church, the secret police, the dreaded KGB, had targeted him and his life was clearly in danger.

We managed to make it to Germany where we remained homeless and wandered from place to place, trying to stay safe as well as alive, while my father continued to minister to churches. This kept us out of the displaced persons or refugee camps, and eventually we made it to the proverbial promised land, the United States, due to the intervention and support of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as well as the U.S. government.

As I grew up in many places, exemplified by my learning four languages before the age of ten, I found the life of danger, displacement and strangeness to be intriguing because it made me different. I could speak those four languages, knew who Stalin and Hitler were beyond just the history books’ accounts, had known extreme hunger, slept under the stars snuggled against my parents, and felt my stomach churn at the sound of any siren. Yes, I had experienced all that but I didn’t know how to play the simple American game of “jacks” (also known as knucklebones), had no idea what to do with a telephone, and thought that everything in the U.S. came in three sizes—large, king-size and giant. I tried hard to fit into an American mold and forget all the past—that’s what was highly encouraged when I finally became a U.S. citizen at age 14—and especially tried to fit into school and church life, which presented additional sets of challenges.

We, the four of us in my family, were indeed the strangers in the promised land, and this was reinforced over and over. Yet there were significant numbers of kind Adventists who believed the verse in the Old Testament, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”1 And I remain eternally grateful for that.

Therefore I am pained and disheartened when I hear the anti-refugee propaganda in the U.S. just now, when even Adventists proclaim, “We don’t want THEM among us, they’re different.” Yes, I am white, I came from the last “popular” war that America has experienced, quickly learned the language, even learned how to play jacks, and eventually became an accomplished, accepted individual. But has the passage of time made a difference in how the strangers among us are or should be treated? America is a land made up of diverse populations, which, to me, makes it an ideal land, but are more recent arrivals less acceptable than those who came years ago, even long before me?

I truly believe today is a time to say, “What would Jesus do?”

When I was doing some training for community centers of a certain city where I lived at the time, someone gave me some newsletters which depicted that population’s antipathy toward those who were more recent arrivals and therefore to be disparaged. The newsletters dated back to early decades of the 20th century. If the country and ethnicity references were blocked out of the articles, one might think the articles discussed today’s refugees and immigrants—but in reality the targeted population groups were Germans, Irish and Italians! Alas, some things never change.

I truly believe today is a time to say, “What would Jesus do?” If we think back to his life and times, he treated strangers, the outsiders of the Jewish in-group, with the same courtesy, helpfulness and kindness as he did those of his inner circle and ethnic population. As the psalmist says, “The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”2 Can we who claim God as our Father do any differently? Perhaps this counsel from the days of the Israelites, “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt,”3 applies to us more than ever. All of us except Native Americans came from somewhere else. Do we only welcome those who look and think like us, or can we open our hearts, our wallets, our minds to dealing with differences, as Jesus would?

Circling back to my own time as a refugee and a life-time immigrant, no matter how much I look and sound like an average, older American woman, I remember both the snubs and mean-spirited actions along with the kindnesses of people who helped us re-establish our lives and welcomed us to this promised land. I remember the women of the old-time Dorcas society who outfitted us with clothes and household items (and to this day I remember the blue bunny slippers I so wanted but alas, my feet were too big already). I remember the thoughtfulness of some teachers who understood my global views and experiences and tolerated my immature state of being as an American, and who encouraged further progress, like the academy teacher who wrote in my yearbook, “You have much talent and you will go far,” causing me to say, “Who, me??” I remember the members of my father’s Hispanic churches who didn’t have much but shared what they had with us, the pastor’s family. And I could go on.

Yes, we are all refugees wandering on this earth, waiting for redemption and a trip to the real promised land, but while here, let us gather with us those who are today’s refugees and make a difference in their lives, in spite of the differences. As the Bible promises, God WILL bless us all, everyone.

  1. Leviticus 19:34
  2. Psalm 146:9
  3. Deuteronomy 10:9
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