An Iranian girl raises a sheet of paper with 'Please HELP Me' on it Nov. 24 as a group of people wait for permission to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia. Macedonia began granting entry only to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. CNS photo/Georgi Licovski, EPA

2015: the year of the refugee

  • December 31, 2015

The easy way to look back on 2015, or any year of news, is to list off all the bombings, shootings, riots, droughts, hurricanes, floods and famines. We can always find a parade of disaster.

We had plenty this last year and a lot of it came with religious overtones. The year began with a Boko Haram massacre of 2,000 people between Jan. 3 and 7 in Nigeria. Shiite Houthi rebels took over Yemen a couple of weeks later. Armed forces of the fundamentalist Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia have been dealing death on that corner of the Arabian peninsula ever since. An attack killing 11 cartoonists and employees of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo might seem like ancient history, but that too was this year, on Jan. 7.

Religiously motivated or religiously associated violence can be found in every month of 2015. In February militants claiming affiliation with the Islamic State beheaded 12 Egyptian Christians in Libya. In March Islamic State fighters demolished the ancient sites of Nimrud, Dur-Sharrukin and Hatra in Iraq. In April the Somali terror organization Al Shabaab murdered 148 Christian students at Garissa State University in Kenya. Also that month, Islamic State fighters beheaded 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya.

It goes on, month by month, week by week, until we get 130 killed in the Nov. 13 Paris bombings and the Dec. 2 shooting that killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif.

All that blood really was shed — shed senselessly in the name of God. But the one number that shapes our global future more than any other is 13 million refugees. If 13 million isn’t a big enough number, add 38 million people forced to flee their homes who have not yet crossed an international border. Every day there is another 30,000 people displaced from their homes by war, famine, drought. One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now counts a total of 59.5 million people it’s worried about — a borderless nation nearly twice the population of Canada spread across the globe. Canadians know they live in a privileged, protected bubble and have vowed to share their protections with 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. We all remember that picture, an image that stopped our hearts, of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi face down on a Turkish beach, dead at the hands of an uncaring world. But our 25,000 will be subtracted from 4.2 million Syrian refugees mainly in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. When they are all here the number remaining in the Middle East will still round out to 4.2 million. Today there is no effort more associated with Catholics across Canada than our refugee sponsorship programs. Refugees are shaping the Church in Canada as parishes, schools, universities and religious orders re-imagine their Church as a field hospital on the battlefield of a very harsh world.

The parishes that have rustled up furnished apartments and volunteer hours for Syrian and Iraqi refugees are giving their answer to the mad bombers and terrorists of the world. Refugees to be hosted by Catholics and others across Canada are fleeing from the Islamic State jihadist’s absurd, hate-filled, pretend caliphate. You defeat a lie by exposing it.

Another answer comes in the form of millions of dollars heading to the Middle East to protect and support millions of refugees there. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace collected $3 million to fund programs both inside Syria and in the bordering countries before Ottawa announced a matching fund for these purposes in September. Since then there’s been another $1.6 million collected which are eligible for federal government matching dollars. There is a good chance this might reach $2 million by the Dec. 31 deadline, which would mean $4 million to help make refugee lives more bearable in the Middle East because Canadian Catholics saw the need.

The Middle East’s refugee problem is huge. But it’s less than half the world’s refugees. The Catholic Register this summer visited Ethiopia, host to 660,000 of Africa’s oft-forgotten refugees. More than 200,000 of the refugees in Ethiopia are on the run from an illiterate mob in Somalia who call themselves Al Shabaab (“The Movement of Striving Youth”). But the story is deeper than terrorism. Most of these refugees were shaken loose from their ancient semi-nomadic way of life by famine in 2012, then famine in 2014 and now famine in 2015. They have fled to Ethiopia which this year has endured its worst drought in 60 years. Put simply, the climate in the Horn of Africa has gone awry. The rains do not come. While political agitators in North America waste gigabytes of Internet space trying to fuel a fake debate over whether climate change is real, climate refugees are filling up camps.

Pope Francis had a specific political purpose when he wrote his June encyclical on care for our common home. Laudato Si’ was
aimed straight at the heart of the just-concluded Paris climate change summit. The Pope wanted a real agreement that would require real sacrifice — an agreement somehow commensurate with the reality of a warming planet in the midst of its sixth great extinction, shedding species by the minute.

But do not mistake the encyclical as mere manouevering. In writing to all people of good will about the sins, mistakes, hopes and truths we share in common, he was showing the world how the Church offers itself as a field hospital for all that is broken, despairing, scarred and sick in the here and now. This is not an inward looking Church of rules fascinated with images from its past. The Church of Laudato Si’ comforts the dying, houses the homeless, seeks peace among nations, shelters the refugee.

“The Earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the Earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters,” wrote Pope Francis in his encyclical.

He also makes the specific links between environmental destruction, a culture of waste and the global phenomenon of refugees.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation,” the Pope wrote. “They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.”

So who should repair such a broken world? “We need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems,” said Laudato Si’.

It will take time to know whether the world took a “frank look” at what we’ve done to the planet and its people in Paris. Returning from the international conference just this month, Development and Peace’s Genevieve Talbot told The Catholic Register it was the best deal possible given the parameters. But she has her doubts about the parameters. “Why would a trade agreement be more binding than a climate agreement?” she asked.

But she was equally sure that without Laudato Si’ there would not have been any consideration of the moral weight of the problem in Paris.

Our future is not random, but it is uncertain. We know too much now to pretend that our modest comforts are normal. We are the exception. Even within our best cities there is a stream of homeless and abandoned people who stare accusingly as we exit the subway. They are our nearest clues to a remote, vast ocean of unclaimed, unwanted, surplus people — the refugees and those who have fallen into a pit of structural unemployment.

Pope Francis has decried, every chance he gets, our “throwaway culture.”

“Human life is sacred and inviolable,” he said last year. “Every civil right is based on the recognition of the first, fundamental right, the right to life — which is not subject to any condition, of a qualitative, economic and certainly not of an ideological nature. Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ places a clear limit guaranteeing the value of human life, today we must also say ‘No to an economy of exclusion and inequality.’ This economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a throwaway culture which is now spreading. In this way life too much is discarded.”

In Canada it has gone further than an economy of death. Death is now written into our law. In February the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it is ethical for a doctor to kill the patient, if that’s what the patient wants. In the court’s view, the doctor-patient relationship is just another transaction and the customer is always right. If the customer asks for death on the grounds of a subjective experience of suffering, even after rejecting those objectively proven methods of relieving such suffering, then the
doctor must comply. Not only the doctor, but the hospital, the hospice, the nursing home, the nurse — every person and instrument of healing at the patient’s disposal must bow down to that patient’s death wish.

As the year comes to a close we do not yet know whether the new government in Ottawa will be granted an extra six months to come up with a solid and well-thought regulation for this regime of death. If no extension is granted, ready or not, on Feb. 6 Canada will become the easiest place in the world to find a doctor who can willingly and legally kill you — or even unwillingly but under threat of losing the right to practice medicine. The courts and the government and the colleges of physicians and surgeons will all soberly pronounce that it is unethical to withhold death from the paying customer.

In Jijiga, Ethiopia, this summer I was invited for a scant half-hour behind the walls of a compound operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. It was sort of a clinic, but not really. There were dozens of men — some who slept there and some who came just for the day. They were talking to themselves, talking to each other, staring at something in the distance or inspecting their own clothes in minute detail. They were mad, insane. My brief chat with the lone clinician on duty convinced me that he would not qualify for the most basic level of nursing in Canada. His abilities as a psychiatric counsellor with as many as 100 patients in his care did not overwhelm me. Though, who am I to judge?

Of course, I wanted to photograph. I wanted to ask serious questions. I wanted to record the sisters’ thoughts and understand their work. I wanted this story. None of that was allowed. In the sisters’ view, neither their work nor the lives of those they care for can be reduced to stories. They seek to unite themselves with their guests and link everything to the mercy of God.

So who am I to take pictures and ask questions?

The scene before me — 60 or 70 helpless, mentally ill men scattered about a dusty courtyard inside a steel-walled compound in one of the poorest corners of Africa should have been a picture of despair, misery, suffering. But the sisters had made order with their tidy garden, the wooden benches around the courtyard, the clean laundry and tidy rooms, the constant attention and care they gave their guests. The men in the courtyard, who may have struggled to speak or understand where they were, had clearly eased themselves into this order of kindness and found themselves if not happy at least safe.

It was a story I wanted to tell, but I was not allowed to do any of the things that go into a journalist’s story. Without pictures or even an interview, I could not put a proper story in the newspaper. I was confronted with a reality placed beyond the reach of journalism. So remember when you read another litany of doom in the newspaper, or watch it paraded in lurid images on your television or computer screen, that there is another reality. We journalists give you the exceptions to a world that is in fact stitched together by kindness, mercy, hope and love.

When Pope Francis walked to the Holy Doors and pushed them open with both hands to begin the Year of Mercy, he was opening up the doors to the real world — the world which God made and Christ’s saving sacrifice sustains. This world that, whether it knows it or not, relies upon the Holy Spirit to call us away from the headlines and the next tweet on our phones and the next image on our screens. The real world needs mercy. The real world offers mercy. And the good news is that God’s mercy abounds.

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