One of War’s Forgotten Casualties

Featured, Social Justice — By on April 9, 2011 at 8:25 am

When pending or actual war invades the headlines of our news outlets and personal attention, we sometimes forget one of war’s worst casualties; displaced civilians. In Libya alone, 75,000 people fled the country between February 19th and March 11th.  Tens of thousands waited and continue to wait at the border seeking protection from their war torn homeland.

So what happens to them once they escape the war and oppression of their homeland?

Simply put, they become refugees who most likely will never be able to return to the life they once lived.  A migrant is one to leaves their country seeking socio-economic recovery, most often because of their homeland is experiencing oppression is some way.  In contrast, a refugee is fleeing physical persecution, oppression and/or war.  Death is an immediate reality.

When a refugee escapes their oppressive homeland, they most often have to live in a refugee camp awaiting resettlement in a more developed country.  While they retain their physical life, their daily reality remains in dyer straights.  Sometimes refugees live in these camps for up to 20 years awaiting resettlement.

My wife and I work with a refugee family from Somalia each week.  After fleeing persecution in Somalia, they lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for years awaiting resettlement.  They are now in San Diego living in a crowded apartment complex alongside refugees from dozens of other countries and traditions.  The family we work with has 8 members and lives in a tiny two-bedroom apartment.

While modern day refugees have escaped physical death, they have experienced profound social and relational death.  First, they have been forced from their physical homes and the rich cultural heritage that makes them up.   Second, a refugee family is NOT resettled alongside the rest of their extended family.  The family of our Somalian friends are now scattered all over the U.S. and Europe.  With their modest income, seeing the family they grew up with is now close to impossible.

The casualty of war that is often overlooked is that of the refugee’s loss of “home.”  Everything they would equate with “home” has been taken (physical home, family relationships, culture, etc…).  It is no wonder that refugee’s often cling to their last symbol of “home” in the form of their inherited religion/tradition.  Without a physical setting or extended family, their identity is solely found in such tradition.

For this reason our friends from Somalia quickly cover their heads when we come to their door, have passages from the Quran on their wall and obey a certain diet.  Their tradition is all they have left and it offers them the security of “home.”

Do we in the U.S. successfully foster their last remnant of “home” found in their religion/tradition, while at the same time inviting them towards engagement in our own?

Having traveled through numerous Arabic speaking countries in the past few years, my wife and I have grown to enjoy the language and culture.  A few months ago we drove to El Cajon, about 30 minutes east of San Diego, for a doctor’s appointment and noticed that all the signs were in English and Arabic, rather than the usual English and Spanish.

As we sat in the waiting room I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the couple next to me.  It was a conversation I would have rather not heard and it broke my heart.  They were complaining about the signs being in Arabic and the more they talked the more heated they got.  At one point, the wife said, “First it was Mexican, now it’s Iranian sh*%.”  She went on to say even more “colorful” stuff that I won’t include here.  I couldn’t believe my ears and I was torn between tears and rage.

San Diego is a resettlement city that offers a home and fresh start for international refugees.  El Cajon has the second largest Iraqi refugee population in the U.S. as they host tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the current war.  The neighborhood adjacent to us is home to an equally large number of refugees from war torn parts of Africa.  In fact, numerous people who we serve among in NieuCommunities have walked alongside these families for 2 years to teach them English and assist them in integrating into a very new culture and tradition.

These are God’s children and they have gone through stuff that I can’t even imagine.  Many have lived in slums trying to escape death and persecution for 20+ years waiting for approval to move to the U.S.  They haven’t experienced a day of peace in their lives.  Once they get here, they have 8 months of assistance and then they are on their own.  Not knowing the language and culture, the odds are stacked up against them and many end up homeless.  The last thing they need are the prejudices of those like I ran into in the doctor’s office.

When we employ such polarizing rhetoric, we not only violate American ideals (other than Native Americans, we were all immigrants at one time), we fracture God’s dream for humanity.  When we understand Jesus’ attention for the Samaritans (Israel’s unwanted “half breed” after Assyria took the Northern Kingdom), we see that if He were on earth today He would be sitting at the dinner table with these modern refugees.  Reality is, in the lives of His followers, Jesus is on earth today and we are to take a seat at the table.

Are we going to sit at the table or remain in a bubble that only drifts farther and farther from the heart of God and the model of Jesus?

Thinking back, I mainly feel sad for the couple at the doctor’s office.  I am sad that they aren’t sitting at the table and enjoying the feast of God’s diverse Kingdom.  And honestly, I know I have prejudices of my own I need to work on before I can point fingers at them.

From early in the Story, YHWH commanded his people to make a “home” for the foreigner within their community and tradition.  Jesus always had a special place for the deserted outcast and socio-political refugee.  May those that follow Jesus (and those that don’t) mourn the casualty of the loss of “home” for those fleeing Libya today.  And may we honor their traditions while offering them a “home” within ours.


Jon Huckins is a veteran youth pastor and public school teacher who is now on staff with NieuCommunities, a collective of missional church communities who foster leadership and community development. After much international travel and study in the Middle East, Jon focuses much of his writing and graduate studies at Fuller Seminary on ethics and social advocacy. Further, Jon writes for Youth Specialties and loves to tell and live out new stories with teenagers. His book Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling released in December ’10.  He lives in San Diego with his wife Jan, daughter Ruby and three legged dog named Harry.  Jon blogs here:  You can also follow Jon on Twitter.

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  • Thanks for this beautiful article and the reminder to all of us of this reality of life as a refugee. It’s fascinating to me that it can be so difficult for all of us to see life from another person’s perspective. We all hold onto some sense of “home” in one way or another, and we all want to be safe and to be loved.

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