Refugees in Search of Justice

eichinger-fiona-refugee-camp-internshipBy Fiona Eichinger

Komm rein,” Basmah urged with a shy smile, motioning towards a structure whose façade looked more like a shipping container than a home. We followed the young woman inside, passing surprisingly modern and clean sleeping quarters, communal bathrooms, laundry rooms, and two shared kitchens before entering the living room. A TV balancing on the windowsill of an open window played a German talk show constituting the only sound in the otherwise quiet depot. Basmah offered us water but didn’t drink anything herself because of Ramadan.

Two days and 222 kilometers later, I was again met with unexpected hospitality. Six-year-old Atiya pulled me along the halls of a former school building, eager to show me her room. We knocked and entered a classroom that had been sectioned off into separate living quarters by temporary dividers. A woman pulled aside the curtain hanging over the opening of one section and, with a smile and gesture, welcomed me into her home.

She indicated that I sit at the table while she brewed a strong coffee. Atiya offered me cookies with a proud smile. The irony of these two encounters was astounding. While interning at a refugee camp in Germany, I had hoped to welcome these sojourners to the country. Yet in a baffling reverse, they met me with such hospitality, consideration, and generosity.

Still, I also heard of robbery and exploitation—refugees stealing from one another or travelers arriving under the guise of fugitives in hopes of earning quick money. One man scheduled for deportation stole the ID papers of a fellow migrant, perhaps planning on remaining in the country with a new identity.

Grief and pain permeated the camp as well. One man arrived with a back shredded by the bomb from which he was protecting his daughter. Another man who was awaiting the arrival of his family was told that the waters of the ocean had swallowed his loved ones.

Yet the resilience of these refugees is incredible, even after eight or more months of waiting in a camp. Little Atiya’s playful wit brings joy to the residents and staff alike, and her aptitude for learning German makes her a helpful interpreter. Only later did I learn that she had fallen from the raft and into the dark water during the treacherous escape across the sea, thrashing with arms that couldn’t stroke and legs that couldn’t tread until her father was able to pull her back in.

Atiya’s older brother has dreams of building a real washing machine; he has already built a model one out of cardboard and eagerly helps the staff with laundry. Her mother’s only wish is to have her own kitchen in which to cook meals for her family.

These experiences reminded me of two things: the humanity of refugees and the complexity of their situation. Yet I was overwhelmed by a compelling question: how do we appropriately respond to this crisis? I believe God has revealed through his Word and his work that he desires justice, and through his redemption we are empowered to pursue it.

In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus declares that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love man.[1] My former university minister Chris Ansell explained that these imperatives mirror two sins: idolatry and injustice. Heather Strong Moore adds that these two are intrinsically linked; failure to follow the first leads to injustice as we ignore others and pursue our own desires at all costs. In order to pursue a life of Christ, we must heed the call of Micah 6:8 (NIV) to “act justly and to love mercy.” Dr. Timothy Keller explains that the Hebrew word for ‘justice’ (mishpat) in this verse puts emphasis on the action, whereas the word for ‘mercy’ (chesedh) puts it on the attitude. Merciful love should thus be the driving force of our pursuit of justice.[2]

Such a merciful love doesn’t come naturally, yet God still calls us to compassion-driven justice on two grounds: his goodness in creation and his grace in redemption. First, the truth that all humans are created Imago Dei—in the image of God—affirms the inherent value of all people. Civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declares, “And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God.”

Secondly, Keller explains that an encounter with and understanding of God’s grace should propel us to seek justice. God has placed his work of freeing the Israelites from slavery as the foundation for his command to do justice.[3] In Deuteronomy 24:17-22 (NIV) he declares, “do not deprive the alien or fatherless of justice…remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there.” This liberation foreshadowed Christ’s ultimate act of redemption through his death on the cross. Our sin condemns us to death and eternal separation from our Creator. Yet God in his merciful love sent his son to take our punishment upon himself so that we may be freed from our bondage. Our debt is paid; we have been justified before God. When we grasp the gravity of this, we must recognize our mandate to “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 3:1 NIV).

How, though, do we pursue justice? Justice is not merely the punishment of wrongdoing; it involves preserving the rights of humans, generosity, and social concern. Yet this requires that we be sacrificially involved. Theologian Jonathan Edwards asks, “How do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?” C.S. Lewis likewise maintains that “our charity must be a real and costly love.”[4] Handouts, though perhaps financially burdensome, are not sufficient. We need to take on a load that includes advocacy, friendship, education and job support, and prayer. We need to become their neighbor.

The task may seem overwhelming and futile; no matter how much we do, there will always be one more person to help. Yet let us not vainly pursue the works-based justification that leads only to disappointment. Instead, be encouraged by the fact that Christ has already fulfilled the role we can never perfectly satisfy. We were spiritual refugees, separated from God by our sin. Yet Christ became our neighbor, breaking into this depraved world and living among the people who rejected him.  He sacrificed himself to redeem us and restore our relationship to God. Our salvation is complete, and now we are free to imitate our Savior. Keller maintains, “Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need”. [5]

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Fiona Eichinger, a guest writer, is a sophomore Biological Sciences and Global Health major at the University of Pittsburgh. As a first generation American, she is passionate about immigrant families and tutors a refugee family on the weekends.

* In this piece, all refugee names have been changed.

[1] Matthew 22:35-40  (NIV)
[2] Keller, Timothy. Generous justice: How God’s grace makes us just. Riverhead Books, 2012.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid

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