“Are there a lot of single men traveling?” my mom asked when I called home from Croatia. “We hear about ISIS in the media – how they could come through with everyone else.”
I thought of the man I had seen get off a bus at the transit camp in Opatovac, Croatia.
He was Middle Eastern, muscular, with black hair cropped short on the sides, traveling alone. He stood in the registration line amid families who’d exited the same bus moments earlier.
This man is what I imagined ISIS might look like if it were standing in line, moving through Europe.
But a volunteer – a man who only saw the “everyone else” – ran up to him, carrying a tray of clear plastic cups half full of chicken broth and noodles.
And he smiled as he handed one to the man who’d just gotten off the bus alone, and the man smiled back – a smile that reached all the way up to his eyes.
And he looked a lot like one of my older brothers after that, just with a darker complexion.
As a journalist with Cru, I had planned weeks earlier to travel to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, to hear stories from Cru staff members there. But I was dropped on the doorstep of history instead. The refugees arrived almost the same time I did.
At first, I was ashamed to realize how little I knew about what was happening in my world – how intentionally I’d scrolled past refugee articles since pictures circulated Facebook of 3-year-old Alan, dead, washed up on a beach in Turkey.
The first time I witnessed a border crossing flooded with refugees, I had the same questions many people have when they think about this situation.
Am I safe here? What is happening? Is that man over there a terrorist? How will this change the world I live in?
Jumana, the 25-year-old woman I met through the fence in the refugee compound, is one of four million refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
Half that number settled before reaching Europe, in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of the rest are headed for Germany or Sweden. Some hope to reach the US.
Jumana is trying to get to Sweden. She’d been on the road for three weeks with four other family members, one of them her 3-month-old daughter.
“We are so tired,” she said, a soft pink scarf wrapped neatly around her head. “Life in Damascus is very difficult. No future. We need to live in peace.”
This is the largest displacement of people since World War II. Living in ignorance of or being upset by the facts won’t change those facts. And even experts are finding that predicting how this situation will play out is like trying to predict the weather: impossible to tell for sure.
But as the face of our own country changed when the pilgrims arrived, starving, after traveling for weeks, this migration of people will change the face of the world we know.
And yet, how we respond in the face of this change shouldn’t be determined by fear.
In fact, we are commanded in Scripture to respond with compassion.
Zechariah 7:9 says, “Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done, and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners who live among you, or anyone else in need.”
Fear shouldn’t affect how I treat this family who’s just gotten off a bus and needs something to eat, some baby formula and a blanket.
Fear shouldn’t be the emotion that determines whether I see a father carrying his sleeping toddler as a threat to my way of life.
Christine’s response wasn’t motivated by fear. She was a 48-year-old mother of two from Switzerland who’d been volunteering for 7 days when I met her. Each morning, she bought 200-300 kilos (between 450-650 pounds) of bananas and delivered them to the refugee compound, which housed thousands of people. The police called her “The Banana Lady.”
If there was time to sleep, which wasn’t often, she slept in the backseat of the black truck she arrived in. There were no showers in the camp, so she hadn’t showered since she arrived.
“I know they appreciate what you do,” I told her as we talked.
“Well, they don’t know me,” she said, “but they are my refugees.”
She was committed to making an issue that is stumping politicians, causing friction between borders and changing the face of Europe, a personal one.
“We think sometimes in Europe – I think in America as well – we have a phobia of Muslim people and forget that they are also humans,” she told me. “You can see they are people. You can see those children on the ground – they are children. And they smile. That’s amazing, because you think, Wow, they have gone through hell. But they keep smiling when you are kind to them.”
So was that man I saw at the border a terrorist? I don’t know. Probably not. But that’s not the point.
The point is that it doesn’t matter. The point is that he was a man who was hungry and needed a cup of soup, and it is in that space that God asks us to respond.
If you are wrestling with how to respond to or process situations like the refugee crisis, here are a few questions that might be helpful:
Ways to respond to the refugee crisis:
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