This moment does not define the refugees, but our response will help define us.
There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, which means that “1 in every 122 humans … has been forced to flee their homes,”2 and half of these are children.3 It is shocking to consider the numbers involved and to reflect on what this means in each individual life. My current assignment is in Europe, where one and a quarter million of these refugees have arrived over the last year from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa.4 We see many of them coming with only the clothes they are wearing and what they can carry in one small bag. A large proportion of them are well educated, and all have had to abandon homes, schools, and jobs.
As members of the Church, as a people, we don’t have to look back far in our history to reflect on times when we were refugees, violently driven from homes and farms over and over again. Last weekend in speaking of refugees, Sister Linda Burton asked the women of the Church to consider, “What if their story were my story?”5 Their story is our story, not that many years ago.
The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee—He was one. As a young child, Jesus and His family fled to Egypt to escape the murderous swords of Herod. And at various points in His ministry, Jesus found Himself threatened and His life in danger, ultimately submitting to the designs of evil men who had plotted His death. Perhaps, then, it is all the more remarkable to us that He repeatedly taught us to love one another, to love as He loves, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Truly, “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”6 and to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.”7
It has been inspiring to witness what Church members from around the world have generously donated to help these individuals and families who have lost so much. Across Europe specifically, I have seen many members of the Church who have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul as they have responded to that deep, innate desire to reach out and serve those in such extreme need around them. The Church has provided shelter and medical care. Stakes and missions have assembled many thousands of hygiene kits. Other stakes have provided food and water, clothing, waterproof coats, bicycles, books, backpacks, reading glasses, and much more.
Individuals from Scotland to Sicily have stepped in to every conceivable role. Doctors and nurses have volunteered their services at the point where refugees arrive soaked, chilled, and often traumatized from their water crossings. As refugees begin the resettlement process, local members are helping them learn the language of their host country, while others are lifting the spirits of both children and parents by providing toys, art supplies, music, and play. Some are taking donated yarn, knitting needles, and crochet hooks and teaching these skills to local refugees old and young.
The reality of these situations must be seen to be believed. In winter I met, amongst many others, a pregnant woman from Syria in a refugee transit camp desperately seeking assurance that she would not need to deliver her baby on the cold floors of the vast hall where she was housed. Back in Syria she had been a university professor. And in Greece I spoke with a family still wet, shivering, and frightened from their crossing in a small rubber boat from Turkey. After looking into their eyes and hearing their stories, both of the terror they had fled and of their perilous journey to find refuge, I will never be the same.
If you are asking, “What can I do?” let us first remember that we should not serve at the expense of our families and other responsibilities,9 nor should we expect our leaders to organize projects for us. But as youth, men, women, and families, we can join in this great humanitarian endeavor.
In response to the invitation from the First Presidency to participate in Christlike service to refugees worldwide,10 the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary have organized a relief effort entitled “I Was a Stranger.” Sister Burton introduced this to the women of the Church last weekend in the general women’s session. There are multiple helpful ideas, resources, and suggestions for service on IWasAStranger.lds.org.
Begin on your knees in prayer. Then think in terms of doing something close to home, in your own community, where you will find people who need help in adapting to their new circumstances. The ultimate aim is their rehabilitation to an industrious and self-reliant life.
Additionally, each one of us can increase our awareness of the world events that drive these families from their homes. We must take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions. Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration.
The Lord has instructed us that the stakes of Zion are to be “a defense” and “a refuge from the storm.”11 We have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father.
Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.
“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”13 In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
For further reference, see IWasAStranger.lds.org andmormonchannel.org/blog/post/40-ways-to-help-refugees-in-your-community.