Refugee Week

This is adapted from the reflection that forms part of All We Can’s resources for Refugee Week, available at the end of this blog.

  

The theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘Our Home’. A theme that invites us to reflect on and celebrate our varied experience and ideas of what ‘home’ means. When I came to prepare some materials for Refugee Week, I knew I had to explore and share the personal story of Jeremiah Burgess – the Director of All We Can’s local partner in Liberia, SHIFSD (Self-Help Initiative for Sustainable Development). He has an inspiring experience of exile and return following the Liberian Civil Wars which shows the bravery and ability of refugees and has fascinating biblical parallels we can all learn from.

I found that Psalm 137 and Ezra 3:1-6 held particular echoes of Jeremiah’s story, spoke into the experience of being a refugee, and caused me to reflect on what ‘home’ means to me.

Pain of leaving home

Psalm 137 is one of the most painful passages to read in scripture. The Psalmist recounts the deep sorrow and despair the Israelites felt during their forced exile in Babylon. They talk of the humiliation of being told to sing songs of joy by their captors when all they wanted to do was weep.

It is not only sadness contained in this passage, but anger, too. The end of the psalm talks about repaying the Babylonians for what they have done – hoping for Babylon’s destruction and even going as far as to revel in the possibility of infants having their heads smashed against rocks.

It is easy to flinch and withdraw at these stark descriptions, but they speak into the depth of confusion, pain, and anger that enforced exile can produce – not just in the Israelites, but in refugees today. Psalms can often be uncomfortable to read, but only because they are so emotionally candid and honest, and it can be liberating to know that the visceral emotions we sometimes experience are not alien to the Bible.

These feelings are familiar to many people in Liberia. During the civil wars in the 90s/early 2000s, over a million people fled the country as refugees. Among them was Jeremiah – now the Director of All We Can’s local partner in Liberia, SHIFSD. He lived for 9 years in a refugee camp in Ghana. During his early time there, he experienced feelings of hopelessness – frequently turning to alcohol to cope with the pain of leaving home. I’m sure Jeremiah would have felt a lot of empathy with the writer of Psalm 137.

Adjusting to new context

Perhaps the most memorable line from the Psalm is verse 4 – ‘how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ To people who had only known how to relate to and worship God in a particular location, they had no frame of reference for how to practice their faith in Babylon. This wasn’t just homesickness or missing home comforts, it was an existential crisis – it wasn’t just their homes that were taken away, it was the practices and rituals that fed and sustained them. The refugee Israelites had to adapt to a totally new context, and the psalmist’s words show us how hard and confusing that transition was.

In Ghana, Jeremiah’s answer to the question ‘how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ was to establish a library in the refugee camp he was living in. He managed to stop drinking when someone asked him one day about the value of his education and he realised he had something he could offer others in the camp. Jeremiah came from a low-income family, but his mother had begged around to get him into school as a child, so he had a higher level of education than most and wanted to give back to society. What started as a makeshift library, soon became literacy classes for children, and eventually grew to encompass adult literacy classes too. Like the Israelites, Jeremiah had to adapt to life in a new context – taking what he had done elsewhere and applying it in a new way.

Hope and reality of return

The passage from Ezra 3 recounts the first tentative steps the Israelites took when they eventually returned from exile after 70 years in Babylon. It talks about how the first thing they did as they returned was to build an altar, make offerings to God, and celebrate one of the Jewish festivals. In Psalm 137 we see the despair and hopelessness of the experience of exile, in Ezra we see hope and joy of return. There will have been times during the exile when the Israelites did not think they would ever return to Jerusalem, and many did not get that chance, but the account of Ezra shows us that even in the experience of despair there was reason for hope for those who had been displaced. The passage also mentions that the people were fearful upon their return – returning from exile isn’t a purely joyful process, but one that carries trepidation. Just as the Israelites asked ‘how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, they may now be asking ‘how do we sing the Lord’s song in our homeland after so long away?’ Their response however, even though the temple was not yet rebuilt, was to worship and serve the Lord.

After 9 years in Ghana, Jeremiah also had to navigate a return from exile, and what his worship and service looked like outside of a refugee camp. He could have decided to start a new life and leave his literacy work behind, but he realised that the civil wars had meant a whole generation of children had missed out on education in Liberia. The need for literacy classes was just as stark back home, as it had been in the refugee camp. So Jeremiah brought SHIFSD to Liberia, and with the support of All We Can, its impact has continued to grow – with SHIFSD’s work now encompassing vocational training for jobs like tailoring and engineering as well as adult literacy.

From his experience of being a refugee, and through the faithfulness of God, Jeremiah grew an organisation that is transforming the lives of hundreds of people every year in Liberia.

Many of the experiences of the Israelites and refugees like Jeremiah might feel alien to most of us, but there is still much for us to ponder this Refugee Week.

While most of us have not experienced exile, what are the things in our lives that might prompt similar feelings of displacement?

How in our lives do we struggle or succeed in adapting to new situations?

What hope can we draw from the experience of refugees like the ancient Israelites and Jeremiah?

This is adapted from the reflection that forms part of All We Can’s resources for Refugee Week, available at https://www.allwecan.org.uk/resources/refugee-week-resources-2024/

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