Affirming Life by Affirming the Stranger in Our Midst

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Immigration and Refugees. Read other perspectives here.

Ten years after the Vietnam War ended, I worked in Malaysia processing Vietnamese refugees, for whom the war never ended. Families and individuals recounted for me their lives post-1975 as they sat across from me on the narrow wooden bench in the tin-roofed shed where I did my interviews. Some of them I will never forget and I wonder still what happened to them.

Linh, a 14-year-old girl, and her 10-year-old brother had been put on a fishing boat by her uncle in the hopes that they would join their father who was in the U.S. The normal five-to-seven-day voyage across the South China Sea had taken them ten days, during which they had run out of food and water and the boat was attacked by pirates. Linh and several of the young women had been raped, one subsequently jumping into the ocean to drown herself. Five people on board had been killed. As I left the camp for the last time before heading back to the U.S., Linh held my hand through the fence. "You are very nice to me. I love you very much," she said. I turned away in tears, overwhelmed by how little in fact I had done for her.

I interviewed a young Cambodian mother who, along with three children under the age of seven, was in jail in Kuala Lumpur because she had crossed illegally from Thailand into Malaysia. (If you entered the country illegally by sea, you were considered a refugee; if you came by land through another country, in this case Thailand, you were an illegal migrant.) She was brought to me in handcuffs and I refused to interview her until they were removed. Her parents, five siblings, and her husband had been killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. I asked her what I could bring her, what did she or her children need in prison until I could arrange for her transfer to the refugee camp? Toothbrushes and flip flops—and permission to enter the U.S. where she could rebuild her children's lives.

Though my memories are thirty years old, today's stories and images of refugees are sadly all too familiar. They still come from lands of conflict and war, some from the margins of society and desperately poor, others well-educated and formerly wealthy, all setting forth on a journey of the unknown to a future they create in their dreams.

How bad has life gotten, I wonder, that you are willing to risk your life, or the lives of those you love, to put them in a small overcrowded boat and head to the open seas? or venture by foot through the Chunnel from France to England (thirty-one miles, with trains ripping by at 186 mph)? or walk for weeks through barren deserts in Sudan, burying your children along the way as they succumb to dehydration and starvation? or journey miles overland from Greece to Germany in the cold rain, while you dodge border guards, sleep in fields and forests, and scavenge for food? That's how bad life has gotten.

Human beings have an inexplicable desire to live and not die. It is the struggle of an infant being born, the last labored breath of the dying, and why we exercise and eat our vegetables. To not move toward life is to accept the inevitability of death—whether that is staying in your neighborhood as it gets bombed, remaining in your village as you starve, or resigning yourself to a future without hope.

We read with admiration of the escape or survival of Jews from Nazi Germany, the courage it took to go on living one more day, or the selfless love with which some sacrificed their own future for the future of their loved ones. And that's precisely the point. When we hear stories of individuals and their courageous struggle to survive, they are no longer a faceless, nameless horde. They are individuals with whom we can identify and we share their sense of longing to live and not die.

When refugees or illegal "aliens" are discussed in the media or by politicians they are, too often, that faceless, nameless horde and our nativist urges trump what all our faiths call on us to do: "Defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and love the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:18). In the years leading up to World War 2, the U.S. shut its door on the tens of thousands of Jews who would have/could have escaped the Holocaust if only given a chance. Most will agree that it was a cowardly, shameful act of our government to keep them out. Will we look back on these times with the same sense of regret? We have been given an unprecedented opportunity to be generous and humane. Let us seize the moment and affirm life.