I was a stranger

Written by: 
Eric Hachenberger

Sixty million refugees at the end of 2015 is a devastating reality. Nevertheless, the story of someone forced to leave home and country due to crime, terror, corruption and war is the story of the one.

“The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee—He was one,” said Elder Patrick Kearon from Britain in the April 2016 General Conference. But not only did Christ develop charitable empathy by walking this path, He also became the greatest example of how to relieve the wounds of people injured by war, persecution and the loss of home, country and family.

Initiated during the General Women’s Session of the April 2016 General Conference, the church united its humanitarian relief efforts with more than 70 organizations in Europe and elsewhere, under the motto, ‘I Was a Stranger.’ It echoes the call of Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,” Guterres stated in an interview with Reuters.

“Everybody who is a refugee overwhelmingly feels powerless,” said Elder Randall Keyes, a service missionary working in the Counseling Center, comparing it to the feeling of having the rug pulled from underneath one’s feet. “In life we want to feel personal power. When we feel powerless, we also can’t predict or control the future. Those two things create trauma.”

Developing countries bordering conflict zones still host the lion’s share of the strangers in the form of refugees, the United Nations reported. While the world is running into the danger of a growing “resentment” and “politicization of refugees,” as stated by the United Nations, the LDS Church is focused on ministering to the one.

“Begin on your knees in prayer,” counseled Elder Kearon, who as president of the Europe Area, has witnessed first-hand the drama the war in Syria is causing in Europe. “Then think in terms of doing something close to home, in your own community,” he continued, “where you will find people who need help in adapting to their new circumstances. The ultimate aim is their rehabilitation to an industrious and self-reliant life.”

Mason Baird, a sophomore from Washington majoring in business management, served his mission in Elder Kearon’s native country of England. There, thousands of refugees have gathered over the years, which Baird considered was Kearon’s reason to address this special topic.

“They come looking for education, employment and most importantly to get away from the trouble their homelands are in,” said Baird. Though they receive houses from the government and are safe, they don’t know how to take the next step.

“The greatest aid,” said Keyes, “is to help people get settled in some ways.” Though physical and geographical settlement done by the respective governments and financial donations of local citizens are surely included, the personal interaction and social integration of refugees are of the greatest importance.

Keyes said he believes the best thing to do to help refugees is to serve. “That is the quick answer, though it is not easily done,” he stated. “Most people are afraid of the refugees. We fear they will bring all their problems with them and make them our problems.” If people are hesitant to embrace strangers of a different culture, language and religion, they would much rather just give some money. This is, however, is not the best way, according to Keyes.

Fears are usually about things people don’t know and understand, taught Keyes. “The more we get to know the people and their stories, the more comfortable we become in our interactions with them.”

Getting involved in volunteer work helps individuals overcome the gap of fear between native and stranger. “You end up caring for, liking and eventually loving the people you serve,” said Keyes. “We hear about that in connection to serving a mission all the time, but it is true in almost any volunteer work.”

Baird drew parallels to his own coming to BYU-Hawaii. “It takes time. When I first came here as a freshman, I was a bit tense. But once I got past the first semester, I listened to, talked to, and got to know people from other countries. Now that I am actually friends with them, know them and where they are from, it makes a huge difference. A lot of students come here and feel so far away from home. But then, once they find those friends and family away from home, this place becomes home for them.”

Jun Gyu Choi, a junior from South Korea majoring in hospitality and tourism management, reflected on a similar situation in his country of origin. “A lot of people try to escape from North Korea through China because of the ongoing conflict, contention and war.” The refugee crisis in South Korea has been going on for more than 50 years. Although the government helps refugees with their immediate needs, Choi remembered engaging in service projects during high school. “We just went and were their friends. They are the same people as I am. There was this kindred spirit.”

This resonates with Elder Kearon’s promise, “Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration.”

Baird remembered the refugees in England being very humble and more likely to listen to the missionaries. “They are sometimes a bit hesitant to join the church, because they are used to so much persecution from their religions. A lot of fear is still in there, but they open up more and more.” He remembered it gave the members opportunities to give service, invite them to activities, welcome them to their homes, feed them a nice meal, and give them a family in a country where they have nobody.

Kearon said, “The possibilities for us to lend a hand and be a friend are endless. You might help resettled refugees learn their host country language, update their work skills, or practice job interviewing. You could offer to mentor a family or a single mother as they transition to an unfamiliar culture, even with something as simple as accompanying them to the grocery store or the school.”

Though mixing cultures causes tension, Baird said the gospel is a way to find common ground. “That is why Latter-day Saints play such a key role in holding countries together. They are this happy medium where they allow people to associate, feel safe and loved.”

Uploaded May 6, 2016