From November 2012 to February 2014, I flew back and forth to Nauru with The Salvation Army, as they provided welfare services to asylum seekers in off-shore detention. It was a life-changing experience.
I worked with people from all over the world, heard languages I didn’t understand swirl around me, and came to value the faith of people who didn’t share my Christian beliefs. It was frontline Salvo work, in a confronting and challenging environment—and I loved it.
A recent global survey by Amnesty International, of more than 27,000 people, indicated that Australian people are among the most welcoming of refugees in the world—fifth after China, Germany, UK and Canada. Seven out of 10 surveyed acknowledged that more could be done to assist people fleeing war and persecution.
Of the Australians surveyed, more than 80% agreed that ‘people should be able to take refuge in other countries to escape war or persecution’ and nearly 70% would welcome refugees living in their city, town or neighbourhood. More than 10% of Australian respondents indicated that they would be open to having a refugee live in their home.
The asylum seekers and refugees I met on Nauru were ordinary people, from a variety of cultural, faith and economic backgrounds. Some had been university students, others educators, some business owners and others truck drivers and farmers.
Many were Muslims, but others were Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus—some even followed the ancient Zoroastrian faith. They had travelled from Iran and Iraq, Palestine, the Sudan, Vietnam and Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The majority have since been deemed to be genuine refugees.
Among the asylum seeker cohort, I found young men who reminded me of my sons—with the same cheeky grins and typical ‘male’ humour. Others were young couples, people in their early to mid-20s with dreams of a safe, new life. There were families, with children who picked up English much faster than their parents and who would play games with whatever materials they could find.
I met some I would have trusted with my life, and others I would never trust. There were friendly people, grumpy people, people who were hospitable and others who were only looking out for their own needs and requirements. Some were demanding of my attention, while others asked for very little.
When Jesus walked and taught in Israel over 2,000 years ago, he welcomed all who came to him—children, women, prostitutes, soldiers from the occupying Roman army, those who held drunken parties, and foreigners who Jews would not associate with (like Samaritans). He didn’t hold back his love or help from anyone based on their faith in him, their morals or ethical stance.
While it is clear that Australians are largely a welcoming people, the issue of how to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis around asylum seekers and refugees is both emotive and divisive. This is an issue which will occupy the minds of policy-makers for many years to come.
Jesus told his followers that people would know them by the love they showed (John chapter 13, verse 35). As Australians consider how to address the refugee crisis, we could not do better than follow the example of Jesus, and be guided by love.