I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day we join with friends and family to give gratitude for the abundant blessings we enjoy. In contrast, think of what one refugee replied when asked what he had brought with him on the boat heading for Turkey. He thought for a moment and answered: “Sadness.”
This man is caught in the greatest migration since World War II. Though numbers cannot be exact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 2014 saw almost 60 million women, children, and men displaced either within or outside their home areas. That number is approximately the population of Italy!
How we respond to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing terror and persecution, war, poverty, gangs, climate change, and hopelessness is a major issue for both leaders and citizens of the countries to which these homeless people flee. We must get beyond the numbing numbers and “feel” the plight of individuals. For those aware of how closely we are interconnected to all creation on our common home, the decision to welcome these brothers and sisters is inescapable.* (The US terror attacks have come from within.)
Connection to Climate Change
Researchers and policymakers warn that these numbers are sure to increase because of climate change. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center states that roughly three times as many people were displaced by environmental disasters between 2008 and 2013 than fled from conflict and violence.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned recently that the scenes of chaos and heartbreak in Europe will be repeated globally unless the world acts to mitigate climate change. “Wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” Kerry said.
Climate change leads to crop failures, natural disasters, higher food prices and the spread of waterborne diseases, creating poverty and pushing people at risk into destitution. The World Bank warns that rising temperatures could drive 100 million people into extreme poverty. Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University and other reputable scientists put the number at twice that amount.
Talks in Paris now until Dec. 10 give hope that the world’s leaders will take positive steps to reduce climate change and thus reduce refugee numbers in the future.
Jubilee Year of Mercy
Care of Earth and care of humanity cannot be separated. Pope Francis recently said, “There is a clear link between the protection of nature and the building of a just and equitable social order. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature, without a renewal of humanity itself.”
December 8th begins the Roman Catholic Year of Mercy that extends to November 20, 2016. Calling us to a spiritual conversion, Pope Francis writes: “We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord’s words: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’ (cf. Lk 6:36)” Addressing Catholics, he writes: “I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this Jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”
It seems relevant that Human Rights Day will be celebrated two days after this special year begins. The Year of Mercy reminds Catholics — and others — to show mercy by helping refugees achieve their human rights. Welcoming refugees is a direct response to the Gospel mandate to welcome the homeless and treat everyone as we would treat Christ. It is an important way to show mercy. We also practice mercy by taking action to mitigate the reasons — like climate change and war — that cause people to flee their homes.
Listening to those who would withhold compassion for certain groups makes one wonder if the innkeepers who refused Joseph and his pregnant wife 2000 years ago truly had no room, or if they didn’t choose to accept people from Galilee. How sad if we could be similarly blinded!
* Entering the United States as a refugee is already a long and difficult process. It takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months or longer, and involves the FBI, Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Defense Department and the State Department. Your biometric data is checked against law-enforcement databases. You must pass a battery of interviews. And if you’re from Syria, the process is even more rigorous.
*My parish, St. Gertrude, Chicago, true to its pledge that “All Are Welcome!” is making plans to welcome a family from Syria (or whatever family is in need). Over 100 parishioners have volunteered to help, and the entire parish will contribute as needed.