Hearing The Voice Of The Refugee

My earliest memory of anything related to “refugees” was my Vietnamese friend who crossed the road with me to school in Leicester, England. We used to play together at the nearby playground, and occasionally borrow books from the weekly book bus near the flats. Our mothers would meet once awhile for cooking sessions and chit-chats. There was an unforgettable incident when we were at the playground and some British kids were shouting vulgarities at us for no apparent reason. Maybe we looked different? Or perhaps we were invading their territory? I was simply a young boy who followed my parents to the UK so my father could complete his studies. My Vietnamese friend fled his war torn country with his family to find a new life.

I must confess that “refugees” have not been on my radar for many years. Let’s face it, we’re so busy with our own lives. Whether it’s getting settled in our job or marriage, or in the early stages of parenting, as young adults in this developing nation of Malaysia, we don’t really have a lot of time to think about anything else or anyone else. “Refugees” are an interruption to peaceful and prosperous pursuits. But we cannot ignore that once upon a time, while some of our ancestors who stepped on the shores of Malaysia were migrant workers, there were also others who could qualify as “refugees”.

Like Bono alludes to in his song “Mysterious Ways”, I found myself reminded of the plight of refugees by my new found friends working for the United Nations Refugee Agency – UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.org.my/home) the past 2 years. The extra nudge was when a church member started working for the UNHCR this year. Alice Nah, one of the Coordinators of the Migration Working Group, which advocates for the protection of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons whom TK Tan writes about in “Pieces of Alice” has increased the volume for me.

Last year, I remember vividly being overwhelmed by emotion when I heard the stories and songs shared by different groups during the event Remembering the People that Built the Nation – The Meaning of Merdeka – Celebrating Labourers, Migrants and Refugees at Central Market Annexe, KL. While there was enough tragedy to highlight in terms of the treatment they have received as people without status in our so called civilized-developing-vision 2020 Malaysia, what moved me was their resilience to live and work towards a better tomorrow for their families, especially their children. What hit home to me even more was when a little boy sang with an angelic voice which oozed gratitude more than bitterness.

So, last Sunday, I could see the eyes and hearts of some church members open wider as they watched the Hands of Hope TV Ad (http://www.unhcr.org.my/cms/hands-of-hope). Perhaps there was also some level of discomfort because some might feel that the church should be more happy clappy rather than dwell on such negativity. Shouldn’t the church be about inner peace, escaping the troubles of this world? Why bring these troubles into our worship? What do the refugees have anything to do with so called “religious people” and law-abiding citizens like us? What is a deeper motivation for us to start being concerned and further being involved?

The Bible reading for that day was timely; as the pastor of the church I knew it was one of those “mysterious ways” moment where comfortable people like you and I need to be shaken (or kicked!) from our insulated selves. Allowing the Sunday to include the voice of the “Refugees” was a needed jolt for most of us who were getting over repercussions of the recent petrol hike. The story of Hagar and Ishmael found in Genesis 21:8-21 is not story which I have often heard in my life as a Christian. And even if I did, my faint memory tells me it was not too friendly to the Egyptian slave woman who served as a surrogate mother on instruction by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Ishmael as the older son appears to be unimportant and must be discarded from the plot thus far. Then the preacher would go on to spiritualize the text towards uplifting Isaac as the promised one over Ishmael, who is seen as an interruption to God’s plan. But, I think there is a tremendous “missing the point” here.

The passage tells of how both Hagar and Ishmael were cast away into the desert, only armed with some food and a skin of water which was probably only meant to slow down their “death sentence” after being cut off from the “promised” family. What caused me distress when I read the story was the tragedy of a mother’s struggle whether to watch her son die, feeling so helpless and hopeless. The plight of Hagar and Ishmael can represent so many marginalized people, especially refugees living next to us, invisible to us unless there is a controversy worthy of mainstream newspaper reporting. The text in Genesis 21:15-16 reads:

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

Many stories of refugees probably end here, with tears. There’s a deep drive within us to refuse to see this as the end of the matter. If that drive is there, then perhaps we are still human after all and not mere desensitized consumers waiting for our next pay check! If there’s any discomfort reading the above passage and hearing the real life stories of refugees in Malaysia, then perhaps calling ourselves people of faith has some meaning because this faith needs some action in concrete love. Beyond getting in touch with our humanity and faith active in love, it’s really about reflecting the true image of our Creator and Father of us all. Genesis 21:17-19 turns the tragedy upside down:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

The “promise” to live and even to be a great nation was also given to the boy who by now should have been deleted from the story. Hagar’s helplessness and hopelessness is attended to, the boys’ cry is heard, and there is still a future for him! It’s not just nice sounding comforting words, but a well of water right before the their eyes. They are not only to survive but in due time thrive. The closing of this short episode is noteworthy in verses 20-21:

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

God did not abandon the boy in the desert but walked with him as he matured, and the promise of him becoming the Father of the Arabs blossoms with his new wife from Egypt. I would be interested to hear how my Muslim friends would tell the story of Ishmael in relation to their history. I’m confident this can be a conversation in the right and respectful spirit as Christians and Muslims would find a great resource in mutual dialogue and living together.

I would not want to ignore the nuances and difficulties involved in working with refugees and the wider systemic issues, which I do not feel qualified to comment. There are others who are involved more directly and with more experience who can aid us in these details. I’m also aware of friends who are wary of religious people who are only focused on getting converts from people in times of vulnerability. The issues are complex and we do not want to sweep them under the carpet. Sincere, well-meaning, and passionate individuals from the NGO circles and religious groups will need to work out the sensitive matters revolving around religious convictions and secular aspirations. This will be ongoing, since not everyone in religious groups are preoccupied with converting people, and not everyone in NGOs would deny the importance of religious faith. There will be those who can broker this conversation further with workable models.

What is important for me at this stage, as a start, is the call to all of us, especially Christians and Muslims, who can open ourselves to the story of Hagar and Ishmael above, and find strength and guidance in this ancient text to hear what God is saying to us in relation to those who are “cast away” from their nations and into our society. The reality, perhaps, is that there are many who are like me not too long ago, when “Refugees” is merely a word and not a face in our consciousness.

Together with those who operate more from a human rights perspective, as well as those who are in the institutions which can effect change, we can engage in ways forward to not only “hear the cries” of those with no home, but also to “lift them up and take them by the hand,” towards building their families and a future of hope. During that Sunday worship, an invitation was given for English teachers for children to come forward to serve. There are always opportunities where we can transform our prayers into action.

Back to my earliest memory of “refugees”: while my Vietnamese friend took the vulgarity thrown at him at the playground, he stood firm with dignity and respect. He held me and walked away from the verbal abuse; it was not worth our time. He had more important things on his mind—getting on with the plan where there is hope and a future for him. It’s time for Malaysia to serve as hands of hope for more boys and girls like him who do not need to be stuck in a detention camp, but can walk the right path from the playground.

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