Last year I met ‘Binyamin’, a young refugee from Afghanistan, who had fled to Europe when he was just 15. He then spent the next eight years being bounced from one country to another, his asylum applications repeatedly rejected.
It was when he finally he visited a church-based refugee centre in Italy that he was connected with a proper asylum lawyer and was given official status in just two weeks. At last he could settle and begin his life again.
‘Binyamin’ is a talented young man bringing so much to his host community. After his travels he already speaks four European languages as well as his mother tongue. He will be a gift to others wherever he stays.
I thought of ‘Binyamin’ last week during World Refugee Day last week. I thought of the many refugees I have met who have enriched my life with their stories and commitment to making a good future.
Last week we also marked St Alban’s Day. Alban lived in third century Roman Britain. His story tells how one day he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution - a Christian priest known as Amphibalus. Alban was so touched by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to learn more about Christianity, at that time still a forbidden religion in Britain. And so Alban became a Christian.
Soon after guards came to arrest Amphibalus. Alban, inspired by his new faith, decided to change clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. When Alban was brought before the authorities, he refused to worship the Roman gods. He was then martyred. Amphibalus was also arrested and killed.
I find many things very moving in St Alban’s story: that he welcomed a stranger, and in that welcome he encountered Christ in and through his guest. And finally, that he chose to walk in the other’s shoes – to experience the other’s life – literally wearing the shoes and clothes of his guest and taking his martyrdom.
At the Anglican Alliance we are privileged to accompany a number of churches around the Communion who welcome the stranger – reaching out to refugees in their midst, people who have fled danger, conflict and persecution. And in each refugee is a person bringing gifts and vision for life, making a contribution to their new communities.
The cathedral in Cairo Egypt has hundreds of people coming each day, receiving health care, comfort, food and advice. Refugee doctors from South Sudan are part of their health care team. In Canterbury England, the churches support initiatives for unaccompanied refugee children, helping with their resettling in local schools. In the US, Episcopal Migration Ministries has served to resettle thousands of refugees in local communities over many decades. In Amman Jordan, the churches support refugees from Iraq and Syria, running a programme for people with disabilities in the camps and providing comfort and support to Iraqi Christian refugees living in the community. In Rome Italy, a church uses its crypt as a welcome centre for refugees. In Uganda, the churches bring practical and spiritual support to refugees from South Sudan. In Malaysia the churches offer language lessons to refugees.
The examples around the Communion are too numerous to list. Yet when I talk with the local churches I often hear echoes of St Alban’s story: how the churches instinctively reach out to welcome the vulnerable stranger; how in that encounter they meet Christ through and in the stranger, and how in that experience they too are transformed, learning to walk in the shoes of the other and to be blessed by the gifts that the other brings.
“For when I was a stranger you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
Revd Rachel Carnegie, Co-Executive Director, Anglican Alliance