Guess what a refugee gave me?
Ali walked down the steps of the aeroplane and onto the damp tarmac.* The first thing the twelve-year old noticed about England was that it was a lot colder than home. The hot, dry summers of his homeland felt a long way away now.
As Ali made his way to the terminal, he stuck close to his cousin. He’d only met him two days earlier when his cousin had flown out from England to meet him in the departure lounge in Paris. And as Ali now stepped through the sliding doors, he was glad to have a friend to help him face the last border control.
When I used to think about immigration my mind just filled with newspaper headlines and political debates. I grew up in Devon, where I didn't know anyone my age who had a different skin tone to me - let alone anyone from a different country.
And so when I used to think about the experience of refugees, my thoughts were never personal. The debates at school would remain only that. Debates. And by the time I was on the school bus home, I’d already left the points I had argued for passionately back in the classroom.
But my experience really deepened when my wife and I moved to Bristol 18 months ago. I’m now part of a church made up of people from nearly 30 different countries. And as I’ve spent time with people like Ali, they haven't just taught me about their home countries. They've taught me about myself.
This week is Refugee Week. So let me share three things I've learnt from my refugee friends.
I've had a passport for as long as I can remember. I can still picture waiting in line on the ferry to France holding my mum’s arm with one hand and the thick, red cover of my child's passport in the other. Proof of my right to live in this country has been so much of my experience that I couldn’t imagine a life without it.
Well, at least not until I met Ali.
Since arriving in the UK, Ali hasn't been allowed to work. That wasn't a problem for the first few years because he was at school.
But he left school over three years ago.
For asylum seekers, getting leave to remain isn't just about being allowed to work and getting a say in where you live. It's about more than that.
It's about safety, freedom and peace of mind - knowing that you aren't going to get sent back to an oppressive regime as a marked man or woman.
“Earthly citizenship is important for the very reason that citizenship in God's kingdom is most important. It represents somewhere we can call home."
It's about security, assurance and being able to plan your future - knowing that you have somewhere to call home again. Well, for a couple of years at least.
As I have supported Christians going through the asylum process, I’ve been quick to remind them of the citizenship they now have in God's kingdom (Ephesians 2:19-20). As if that's all that matters.
Now, I’m convinced that our most important identity is our eternal one. But to think that therefore earthly citizenship is of no value is to miss the point.
Earthly citizenship is important for the very reason that citizenship in God's kingdom is most important. It represents safety, security, identity. It represents somewhere we can call home.
Things we receive fully and finally in God's kingdom.
Which WhatsApp group do you first message when you get some good news? Who do you call when you're worried? The people we usually turn to in highs and lows are our family.
But for the asylum seekers I know, family can be a subject of huge sadness and loss.
“The more time I’ve spent with asylum seekers, the more I've sensed that their feelings about life back home can be mixed."
For many, their families are still back home - thousands of miles away, in a different culture and time zone. And whilst you might think that their move west might be widely celebrated by their family, it's not always so positive.
Firstly, there's the trauma of saying goodbye to a loved one in the knowledge that you may never see them again. That's not to mention the possible risks of their journey ahead.
Then there are the reasons they decided to leave in the first place. It might be for a better education. It might be to escape war. It might be that they question the religious and cultural pressures of their home country - a way of life which their family may still accept.
The more time I’ve spent with asylum seekers, the more clearly I have sensed that their feelings about life back home can be mixed. And that might be one reason why my refugee friends don’t often talk about their family.
But it's also one of the reasons that the gospel is so wonderful. In Jesus Christ, my refugee friends can not only look forward to one day receiving eternal life. They can experience the gift of a church family now (Mark 10:29-30).
And what a privilege it is to be a brother to them when their other brothers are so far away.
Learning a new language is hard. I know. I failed my GCSE Spanish. And one of the hardest things for immigrants who arrive in this country is being understood.
“Over the last year I've noticed something. When God judges he divides people. When he blesses he unites them."
Our church works hard to support our foreign brothers and sisters with this. We run conversation classes. We do Bible studies in easy English. We translate some of our sermons into Farsi. But even then, many people still struggle to communicate.
Now, it would be easy to lose heart. “Can we really make this work?" “Shouldn’t they start a separate church?"
But over the last year I've noticed something. When God judges he divides people (Genesis 11:9). When he blesses he unites them (Acts 2:4-5).
And when God completes his blessing, his people will be united from every language and nation (Revelation 7:9).
What is the most valuable gift my refugee friends have given me?
A little taste now of the life we have to come.
*Whilst not based on actual events, the events described in this article are similar to those that some of my friends have described to me.