By Brent Hamoud
I was sitting with my cousin in a tented settlement as he shared some major news. Syria’s war had turned his family into refugees, but after years of grueling displacement in Lebanon, a new possibility loomed on the horizon. His file had slowly moved through UNHCR processing and there was an exciting update: the family was among the lucky 1% of refugees to be offered resettlement. With arrangements for a new home taking shape and airplane tickets already reserved, my cousin was told to ready his family for imminent departure. A door to Europe had opened, and it led to Switzerland of all places. This is the refugee resettlement jackpot!
Emotions stirred within me as I processed the information. My cousin and I had enjoyed happier times together in Syria among his fruitful orchards, but these days I simply watched as he endured a refugee’s existence. Now it looked like I could one day visit him at a Swiss home. Scenes of us together in the shadow of the Alps were already filling my imagination when my cousin shared something else. What I heard next proved to be an unforgettable lesson about how faith, people, and place move us in profound ways as we journey through this unsettling world.
My cousin’s predicament of place is not exceptional. The Middle East is full of people who want to be somewhere else, somewhere better. Some have been forced from their homes and cast into displacement, others have been burned by abusive states that turn citizenship into a chain of bondage rather than a status of dignity. The region teems with tired poor who dream of futures on distant shores, and deteriorating conditions are making people increasingly desperate to emigrate. Restless hearts pray for the chance to take part in the great human phenomenon: migration.
In the beginning, people moved. History is essentially an epic tale of humans flowing across lands, and the Bible is a complete testament to mankind’s perpetual state of motion. Removing from Scripture the accounts of people on the move would leave us with a very thin text indeed. Migration as a primordial force that has shaped every part of the world. It is the reason you are where you are.
The Middle East has a long heritage of exporting people globally and moving individuals around the region. Its expatriates and diaspora communities exist worldwide, and everywhere they go they make their places better- and the restaurant scenes tastier! The region is also a destination for migrants who arrive for a myriad of reasons and end up making it their home. Middle Eastern migration, like everywhere else, is a game of give-and-take. It has delivered massive benefits and provided new chances for countless lives, but it does not happen without great personal cost. Leaving family, friends, and community is never an easy move, and the Bible conveys this reality even as we reflect on the most promising of emigrants.
Abraham’s move to Canaan is a sacred migration that set out to reverse humanity’s displacement from the garden and put us on course for a renewed relationship with God. (May we never forget that the biblical salvation narrative is propelled by a migrant willing to move.) Scripture is under no illusion that the patriarch is beckoned to do something extremely distressing: to leave his country, people, and father’s household. This was a wholly unreasonable ask for someone of that time, but God graciously did not make it unbearable. Drawing from the faith tradition centuries later, Stephen at his martyrdom informs us that it is not until after his father’s death that Abraham is sent by God to the promised land (Acts 7:4). Leaving his father behind in Haran to emigrate westward would have been soul-crushing, and God did not require it.
Here and elsewhere, the Bible treats any case of departure from homeland and kin as a most serious matter. Heartache and heaviness pour out of accounts of Cain going out to the east of Eden, Jacob fleeing from his household, Joseph being sent away from parents and home, and even Ruth leaving Moab to remain with her mother-in-law Naomi, herself an embittered migrant.
Heartache and heaviness likewise pour out of the endless streams of farewells unfolding around the Middle East today. An ancient prayer echoes in the souls of one-way travelers as they take off on flights out of town: “You have taken account of my wanderings. Put my tears in Your bottle” (Psalm 56:8).
The link between kin and place is a soft spot for everyone, and it is exactly where Jesus pressed his finger. He made no qualms about the costs of discipleship; fair-weather followers were disturbed to learn how Christ compels us to an orientation of the heart that is willing to let go of ALL attachments and depart without looking back at anything (or anyone) left behind (Luke 9:57-62). The disciples took full account of the hefty price as well. “Look,” said Peter, “we have left all we had to follow You.” Yet Jesus is ever attentive to our deepest needs: “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times more in this age—and in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:28-30).
These words are a timeless truth, but our current times warrant fresh reflection because we live in a world where one’s quality of life can improve drastically simply by crossing borders. Whereas family bonds once tethered people to places, many now yearn to emigrate for the very sake of parents, spouse, children, and siblings. Without doubt, it is completely prudent to leave broken situations when doors to prosperity, dignity, and opportunity are opened; however, it turns out that the Middle East is also full of imprudent folk.
When Switzerland offered my cousin deliverance from displacement his final response was, “thanks, but no thanks.” He and his wife had decided to remain unsettled refugees. Though they were displaced, they were not alone. Family and friends surrounded them, and all the pleasures of Switzerland could not replace kin. Also swaying the decision were his nephews and niece. Their father was lost to war’s violence and my cousin willingly shouldered an obligation to help support the children of his deceased brother. Besides, Syria was still home; Switzerland would only take him farther away. He figured such resettlement would be less of a deliverance from displacement and more of a double displacement, and he was happy to have another lucky family occupy those airplane seats.
My cousin’s decision may not be normal, but neither is it unusual. Amid the exoduses from the region there are those compelled by faith, hope, and love to remain. They have chances to settle in places with bigger paychecks, kinder governments, and cleaner streets, but their response is always, “thanks, but no thanks.” The motivation for staying is sacrificial and sincere; they believe in the kingdom of God and want to be a part of it within the places and among the community that God has placed them.
Perhaps these counter-intuitive decisions to willfully remain in hazardous locations demonstrate a reimagined gospel message: “No one who rejects emigration to remain in oppressive situations with siblings or parents or friends or church family or ministries for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many more in this age- and in the age to come.”
My cousin’s words were still fresh on my ears that day when we received some terrible news. A nephew had been struck by a car and killed while fetching items from the market. As the family erupted into grief and mourning, any doubts about where my cousin needed to be completely dissipated. It was another lesson that I will never forget. Finding our place in the world may be a conundrum, but one question can help give us direction: When death strikes, who do you want around you? Perhaps there is the place you need to be.
Brent is the MRel Program Lead and co-author with Rupen Das of “Strangers in the Kingdom: Ministering to Refugees, Migrants and the Stateless.”