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Monday, September 15, 2014

Australiana # 17: “Jesus Was A Refugee”

For the last three months, the Uniting Church has become a part of my life. My friend, an Indian Christian, suggested we visit one so that she could put her 15-month old son in the playgroup there and he would become more confident about dealing with strangers. “If you don't mind the kids, it may be a good place to network with people from different countries.” I agreed, for I did not have much else to do. My friend took her son to a couple of churches in two of Brisbane's western suburbs – Toowong and Indooroopilly.

Unlike in India, where churches are minority institutions and thus attract almost always Christians, in Australia, they are more like community centres. I've seen Iraqi women in full burqas joining in the chatter with Korean mothers at the playgroup. I have exchanged notes with very talented and educated Iranian women about the cultural similarities between India and Iran. And I have never been asked if I am Christian (except, of course, by fellow south Asians).

On the Indooroopilly Uniting Church window

On one occasion when my friend was late, I waited outside the Indooroopilly Uniting Church. There were posters on the window. One caught my eye, “Jesus was a refugee.” Having studied in Christian institutions in India and with many Christian friends and relatives, I was surprised I had never heard of it before. I asked my friend, a Protestant from Hyderabad, and she had no clue. “We'll have to study this a bit,” she said. And so I Googled. One commentary on the New Testament says: “If we read 2:13-14 in the context of Matthew's Gospel, we realize that even in his childhood the Son of Man already lacked a place to lay his head (8:20). Disciples would face the same kind of test (10:23; 24:16). Jesus' miraculous escape here should not lead us to overlook the nature of his deliverance (compare, for example, 1 Kings 17:2-6). Jesus and his family survived, but they survived as refugees, abandoning any livelihood Joseph may have developed in Bethlehem and undoubtedly traveling lightly... Some Christians in the West act as if an easy life were their divine right, as if to imply that suffering Christians elsewhere lack faith or virtue. Yet from its very beginning the story of Jesus challenges such a premise. Of the millions of refugees and other impoverished people throughout the world (for reports, see, for example, B. Thompson 1987), some are our brothers and sisters in Christ; many others have never yet heard how much he loves them.”

The Uniting Church is a strong advocate for rights for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia and “a just response to the needs of refugees that recognises Australia's responsibilities as a wealthy global citizen, upholds the human rights and safety of all people, and is based on just and humane treatment, including non-discriminatory practices and accountable transparent processes.”

The treatment of asylum seekers in Australia has been the raging political debate over the last six months. With wars in Syria and Iraq and mounting xenophobia, many citizens view refugees as 'future terrorists'. As a developed nation with low population, Australia is obliged to take in refugees and asylum-seekers, but in a crippling phase of economic recession and the very real threat of terrorism, politicians are reluctant to do too much.

I met Soh*, a woman who fled Iran with her husband and child. She travelled on a fake passport to Indonesia and then arrived in Australia by boat. Not arrived, actually. They were intercepted by the Australian navy and shunted to the Christmas Island Detention Centre in the Indian Ocean where they waited four months to get a bridging visa that would enable them to go to mainland Australia. The bridging visa allows Soh and her husband to stay in Brisbane as temporary residents but they are not allowed to work or study. The government provides them financial assistance to cover their basic expenses. Soh hopes to get an Australian citizenship. “I love it here. I don't want to go back to Iran. We'll be put in jail for leaving the country on fake passports.”

On most days, I find Soh at the Uniting Church, volunteering to take care of the children, while mothers participate in the art, sewing or English-speaking classes the church runs for free (or for a minor donation of $4) to enable immigrants to interact and mingle with members of the community. It's a relief for her. Her life hangs in balance, but she has never felt more free.

(*name has been changed to protect identity)

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