Abu Rafi surveyed what once was a familiar scene.
Displaced from Qaraqosh, Iraq by the marauding ISIS forces, his family of ten fled to Kurdistan where he secured a two bedroom apartment.
Now with ISIS in retreat, he traveled back to see the wreckage.
Their home was robbed and burned. They used to host many friends; now the sofa and dining table are gone. They had a garden; it is ruined. Grandkids picked oranges, and ran barefoot on the green grass.
Now they are just memories, though the process of repair and repainting has begun.
From Kurdistan he lamented with Lilian Samaan, the American Bible Society’s strategic ministries advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s okay,” he told her. “I have my daughters and son around me, alive and well. That is what matters most.”
Samaan asks us to empathize, but also more. We must recognize first that Arab refugees in America almost universally share this desire to go home.
“Their old home, their garden, their church, their priest, their community,” she said, “all that once was is now lost, all gone.”
We might want to help, she says, but it is not that simple. These were a proud people, violated thoroughly. Their honor has been damaged, and their need of assistance is a further source of shame.
“A gentle approach and a posture of learning, listening and asking the right questions,” she counsels, “will allow access to support in a dignified way.”
It is kind and wise advice, but also personal. Samaan is originally from Jordan – not a refugee but an immigrant who sees herself in many she now comes along side of.
What made the difference for her was respect.
“I was welcomed into homes, cherished like a daughter, and trusted like a friend,” she said. “At work and at church on the North Side of Chicago, my contributions and gifts were acknowledged and appreciated, as an immigrant.”
And if American Christians can go a step further, they might reverse their roles. Samaan urges the church to become disciples of those washing up on their shore.
“I believe the American church is in a privileged position to have such people of history and faith in its midst,” she said. It’s a golden opportunity to come alongside refugees from these areas, hear their story, acknowledge their pain, affirm their honor and resilience, and minister to them with presence and friendship.”
And in the process, learn.
“Can we become disciples of the minority church, the persecuted church?” she asked. “Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to commune with a church that has suffered but survived persecution over many centuries, demonstrating patient resilience?
“It could be that this is a moment for us in the West to step aside, lay down our ideologies and agendas, and allow the Church in the East to propose its own solutions, and with our support, lead us.”
Abu Rafi will soon lead his family home. Can we, in spirit, join him?