- WEA General Assembly 2019
Assisting refugees is an intense and exhausting task, but one with great potential fruitfulness. Brian O’Connell, chair of the Refugee Highway Partnership (which provides training, resources, and connections to assist entities serving refugees), described the opportunities for disciple making among forcibly displaced people in a workshop at the World Evangelical Alliance’s General Assembly on Saturday (November 9).
“Refugees are the most vulnerable people on the planet, but they are also the most open to new perspectives,” O’Connell stated. That could mean openness to radical extremist ideology—or to the gospel, if Christians reach out to them with a caring, relational witness.
One of O’Connell’s central principles is to always think of refugees as “the greatest asset we have” rather than as needy recipients. He urges groups working in this sector to listen to refugees’ own voice and integrate them in leadership, as many of them come with considerable knowledge and skills.
O’Connell acknowledged that the overall global situation has become even grimmer than usual, with a growing number of refugees (the United Nations estimates 71 million). For the first time since World War II, displaced persons are frequently viewed as a threat; resources for humanitarian response are shrinking; Western countries are increasingly denying entry to asylum seekers; and the few refugees gaining entry to recipient nations face rising social exclusion and hostility.
In a humanitarian crisis, O’Connell explained, the United Nations and other NGOs generally respond with material resources—food, water, shelter, medical care—to stabilize the situation. The key role for the church comes after that: helping newly stateless people to deal with their emotional trauma and great loss, rediscover purpose and belonging, and plan for a meaningful future.
“Humanitarian work is mostly transactional,” O’Connell observed. “It functions in terms of the number of tents or bottles of water provided. But the church is relational. It expresses to refugees that they have value.”
David Rihani, vice president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, shared how Christian organizations are responded to the refugee crisis in his country. According to UN figures, Jordan has over 750,000 refugees (mostly Syrians) in its total population of 10 million.
“It can be tiring for refugees to complete paperwork for benefits from big organizations,” Rihani said, “but the church adds to refugees’ lives immediately by taking them into the believers’ homes. Once you have provided food and shelter, the refugee needs integration and healing. That is our role.”
Rihani noted that the Refugee Highway Partnership has created a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) regional group, which convened last month in Amman. The coordination among groups has reduced duplication and increased efficiency.
“We are seeing the value of these regional groups,” O’Connell commented, contending that well-intentioned organizations seeking to offer help can sometimes complicate the problems. He said that the Refugee Highway Partnership has established yearly regional gatherings in North America, Europe, Brazil, South Asia, and Africa.
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