Refugees: Angels or Villains or Neighbours

Yaabut—I’m pretty sure it’s not a real word and yet I seem to hear it all the time…

We need to welcome refugees—right now that means Syrian refugees especially.
Yaabut there are lots of people in Canada to help and you know that the Syrians are just planning to come to Canada and have lots of children and take over our way of life.

I don’t think that’s true. I think that people are looking for a safe place to live in peace.

Yaabut if they just want to live in peace why are young men coming in disproportionate numbers? I think it is a terrorist plot.

It isn’t just young men though. I’ve seen photos of families and older people—all kinds of people who seem worn out and tired and vulnerable. I am sure that we are called to welcome and help these refugees.

Yaabut did you see how many of them have cell phones and nice clothes? Maybe they don’t really need our help. Maybe they are taking advantage of us to get into our country and undermine our way of life.

That seems harsh to me. This isn’t a safe journey for them. I doubt it was an easy decision to leave their home, their family, their income, everything familiar to venture into the unknown. I would need to feel truly threatened to do that, wouldn’t you?

Yaabut they are really picky about stuff. I heard that they wouldn’t take food and medicine from the Red Cross because of the cross on the packages—too Christian.

I guess it’s not really anything new. We have long struggled when it comes to who we should and shouldn’t help in this world. We worry about putting ourselves at risk, about being “suckers”. If we offer hospitality will we accidently invite a terrorist into our country—our home? How likely is it that we will entertain angels? (Hebrews 13:2)

In chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel, there is a story about who is our neighbour. A man is traveling—he is robbed and injured and in need of care. A priest sees him and says, “Yaabut, if I stop to help I will become impure and unable to perform my duties.” A Levite has a similar response, “Yaabut, he is a Samaritan and I am a Levite—I will help my own kind.”

Who is my neighbour? When we ask this question, we are really wondering if we must respond to the needs of the other person or not. We are really wondering if our call to hospitality must truly extend to all. We are really asking if our love—the love of God which we seek to share—can be in any way conditional.

Here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about it:

 “…’Who is my neighbour?’…The answer is: ‘You are the neighbour. Go along and try to be obedient by loving others.’ Neighbourliness is not a quality in other people, it is simply their claim on ourselves. Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbour or not. We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbour to him.”

   The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, SCM Press Ltd, 1959, page 67-68.

I hear the concerns that people express about extending ourselves to refugees. I know the fears and prejudices and genuine uncertainties. I have heard all the Yaabuts you can throw at me and I am still convinced that the call to Christians is clear and unequivocal—we have no choice but to reach out and to draw the other in. We must always take a chance and welcome the stranger. We must always help the vulnerable, even if it puts us at risk.

Yaabut, who is my neighbour?

The one who shows mercy is the neighbour.

by Laura T. Kavanagh

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4 thoughts on “Refugees: Angels or Villains or Neighbours

  • January 5, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you Laura Kavanagh for this essay-liked the new word Yaabut- we hear it so much when there are decisions to be made!!

  • January 20, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    “How likely is it that we will entertain angels? (Hebrews 13:2)” Very true! That’s the struggle–walking the sometimes very fine line between hospitality and safety. Our church has had to discuss that line recently in regards to church security, unfortunately.

  • January 22, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Hey Laura, thanks for showing up some of the misconceived notions about refugees among us. It is so easy to have prejudices against strangers, even if you live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, like Toronto. We need to welcome the stranger, as Mary Jo Leddy would say. Also, thanks for reminding us about what it means to be a neighbour.

  • February 7, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    Here in small-town Ontario, I have been blessed to be able to interact with a Syrian family since they arrived April, 2016. A group of mostly church people have shared in helping them (and four beautiful children) in creating a comfortable and safe home, planting vegetables, learning English, preparing to work, and becoming Canadian. When I invited the children to come to our VBS last summer, their Dad was quite happy. He said in his new language that we are all brothers… and he was happy to have his children learn in our church. I have always been happy that my father was able to come from way north in Scotland as a young boy … we have kept some traditions, though none of the language…. and I am glad to be an immigrant Canadian.


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