The following blog post is the transparent story of what I learned from my first interaction with a refugee to the US. The purpose of this post is not to take a political stance. Rather, my desire is to “humanize” the issue in a way that may bring a bit of understanding to Christ followers. Refugees have stories. And so do American Christ followers who may take either side on the debate of how to handle the current refugee crisis. As you read, you may find yourself somewhere in the story. My hope is that you will be challenged toward Christ-like compassion.
I remember the day I was standing on cold stone paved lot beside my middle school. I had grown up in what was then a rural town, now suburban, just north of Atlanta. Our little town was pretty typical of the south in the early 80’s in that there was limited diversity, and what little there was often was divided both geographically and socially. Those divisions even made their way onto that paved playground. On that day a new kid was introduced to our school – and he was different. His name was Sambo. All I knew then was that he was from somewhere in Asia. He didn’t speak hardly any English. Though timid, he tried to make friends by joining into our game of tag. And then it happened.
One of the popular kids in our grade ran up behind Sambo’s back and screamed at him. Sambo jumped what seemed to be 5 feet off the ground and ran away – and kept running until he was out of sight. Of course a bunch of cruel middle schoolers laughed and thought that to be hilarious. From that day forward kids at our school seemed to go to great lengths to try to scare Sambo. And most of the time it worked.
Several years later I was in a social studies class and heard about the Khmer Rouge regime led by a murderous dictator named Pol Pot. He had led a predominantly youth army to terrorize and murder nearly half of the country’s population – all in an effort to wipe out any potential resistance and establish himself with a brainwashed populace. And then it hit me. Sambo was from Cambodia. Sambo was a refugee. Sambo had watched people die. Sambo had been terrorized himself. But Sambo escaped somehow. And he had been resettled in our little rural town – as a refugee.
In so many ways he was different. But when I started to think of the way we entertained ourselves (yes “we”) on the playground by terrorizing him, I hung my head in shame. What kind of terrible person was I? And I was just a reflection of our entire community in that we both feared and struck fear in a person simply because we didn’t know his story. How many times has that happened in your town?
I’m not sure what happened to Sambo. He stayed in our transforming suburban town into high school. While Sambo was joined by many others from Cambodia, refugees from other nations started to flood into the area. There were Bosnians, Vietnamese and host of other origins, but all of these people had two things in common. First, they were fleeing something that most of us will never experience. Second, they were hopeful that their new home would be a place where they could leave behind their fears and start over.
Unfortunately Sambo’s story of finding his new home in the US not so hospitable is not so uncommon. And in times of uncertainty that face us all because of the spread of global terrorism, the playground scene is happening time and again. Sambo and I were never close friends, but I learned a lot from him – mostly in the form of regrets. I regret not being the first to welcome him when he arrived. I regret not being the one to stand up for him when he was picked on. And I regret that thousands of other “Sambos”, because of our fears and misunderstandings, may never even make it onto the playground and get to start over. I don’t pretend to have this whole refugee and immigration thing figured out. But I do know, first hand, what it’s like when the refugees move to town.