Refugee Week, 14 – 21 June, offers us a few days space to think and pray about refugees and migrants who have had to leave their homes, livelihoods and countries. During the pandemic, home is a place we have spent time in, got used to and perhaps taken for granted. But for many, home is something longed for, out of reach.
This year even the temporary homes which offered some sort of refuge to refugees have been under threat. In March some of the flimsy structures made of plastic sheeting and bamboo that have served as temporary homes for Rohingya refugees in the vast camp of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangla Desh, burnt down. The devastating fire made 45,000 people homeless and left 429 people unaccounted for. All We Can is funding support for the rebuilding of stronger homes for some of the refugees affected.
Also this year, 4,500 migrants have made the risky Channel crossing to the UK, double the number of last year – and we’re only in June! Shockingly this number included at least 250 unaccompanied children, some as young as 12.
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) tells of a traveller on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho who was attacked by robbers and left injured on the roadside. Two people who might have been expected to help him, a priest and a Levite, passed him by. The one who did care for him was a Samaritan, the least likely person to stop and help, Samaritans being a traditional enemy of the Jews.
Jesus told this story in answer to a lawyer’s question “who is my neighbour?”. The lawyer had to adjust his thinking to admit to Jesus that the good neighbour was the Samaritan.
Refugee Week invites us to reflect on the dangerous journeys undertaken by migrants and refugees in their search for a new home and a better life. The parable is a challenge to us to ask ourselves how can we be good neighbours to refugees living in our communities as well as the millions of displaced people across the world?
Syrian refugee Khalid and his sister with aid worker Ali in Mafraq, Jordan
Perhaps it is not well known that the late Duke of Edinburgh was once a refugee. As a baby he was carried into exile in an orange crate and endured a hard and lonely childhood far from his homeland, Greece.
Like many refugees forced to flee their homes, Prince Philip knew family tragedy early on his life. His grandfather King George 1 of Greece was assassinated. His father Prince Andrew’s life was threatened by a military coup. The family escaped to an impecunious life in Paris. Eventually even that precarious security dissolved. The Prince’s father abandoned Philip and his sisters. Their mother suffered mental health issues and was confined to a clinic. The young Prince was sent to boarding school and parcelled out to various relatives in the holidays, signing visitors’ books “of no fixed abode”.*
Aloneness and homelessness is a hallmark of being a refugee. Such difficult experiences shape human lives, sometimes building resilience and sometimes trapping people in despair.
In 2015 Yisabet, an Armenian Christian from Aleppo, Syria, was forced to flee her home, terrified by bomb raids and the violent war. She and her two young children trekked on foot over difficult terrain to reach safe refuge in Jordan. The family had enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in Syria. Now their temporary home was shabby and rundown. The girls constantly asked when they could go home and play with their toys and were teased at school for always wearing the same dress. Yisabet was lonely, bereft, uncertain what the future would bring.
A recent Red Cross survey found that nearly half of young Syrians had a close relative or friend who had died in the war. One in six had a parent who was killed or seriously injured. **
At the age of 16, the Duke of Edinburgh tragically lost one of his sisters, her two children and husband in a plane crash which left him devastated.
Three year old Aymen’s father was a soldier, killed in Syria. Aymen was living with relatives in a tent in the desert near Mafraq, northern Jordan. The little boy did not speak, possibly traumatised by bombing which destroyed his home in Homs in 2012.
Khalid’s father said the seven year old’s hearing was damaged through bombing. He was now profoundly deaf. His older brother Salmah was suffering from Bell’s Palsy as a result of trauma. A distressed neighbour in the block of flats in Mafraq said she had a blind son who had been arrested and tortured in Syria and her husband killed.
Such deeply difficult events are life changing. Yet they can also invoke an amazing and admirable resilience in those so badly affected.
Asma fled her home in Dera when her ten year old son was shot and injured. A refugee in Amman, Jordan Asma was determined to to make a better life for herself and her family. She was a qualified librarian and teacher in Syria, but not allowed to work legally in Jordan. Undeterred she volunteered at a local community project. She could cook, she said brightly, so was hoping to enrol on a business start up course and set up her own catering business.
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, it is estimated that 6.7million Syrians have fled the country, with over 1.8 million hosted by Jordan.(UN figures) The needs of refugees are ongoing as they seek to build new lives in a different country.
Christians remember that Jesus commanded his followers to love our neighbours as ourselves. All We Can’s work with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar enable us here in the UK to reach out to some of those who are lonely, homeless and far from the lives they knew before war and persecution uprooted them.
Jesus himself was an exile, the family fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous threats. The family returned to Israel when Herod’s death made it safe for them. It may never be safe or possible for thousands of exiled Syrians to return home. Yisabet’s house was destroyed by bombing as was Khalid’s home and family business.
An estimated 30% of homes are damaged or destroyed, livelihoods ruined and the Syrian economy broken.*
Since 2015 the UK has welcomed 5000 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Many refugees have found support and a new life here. The UK’s plan to turn away any migrants and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats is not so hospitable, despite the desperation of their situations that drives them to take such risks.
Being exiled from your homeland is a lonely and isolating experience. The music class of young people in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan did not want to sing modern songs. Like the Israelites exiled to Babylon who lamented their loneliness in psalms, the young Syrian refugees in Za’atari wanted to sing the traditional songs of Syria, to keep their heritage and memories of their homes alive.
To mark International Women’s Day on 8th March 2021, Woking People of Faith facilitated a virtual tour of Shah Jehan Mosque, the first purpose built Mosque in the UK and North West Europe.
The link between International Women’s Day and this Grade 1 listed Mosque, built in 1889, is that it was largely funded by Shah Begum Jehan, Nawab Begum of Bhopal in central India. Shah Begum Jehan was one of four female rulers of Bhopal in the late 1800s when Bhopal was a princely state, an unusual role for a woman at the time.
The mosque was the concept of a remarkable Orientalist, Professor Gottlieb Leitner, Born in 1841 to Jewish parents in Budapest, after his father died, his mother moved to Istanbul and married a Christian. The young Leitner mastered 8 languages including Arabic and went on to have a distinguished career as an academic and head of the University of Punjab. He had a vision for providing a European Institute of Oriental Studies and found suitable premises in Woking. The Oriental Institute for Learning and the mosque were intended to provide a sympathetic cultural environment for students, mainly from India.
After Leitner died in 1899, the mosque and institute fell into disuse but an Indian lawyer Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and his associate and Muslim convert, Lord Headley, saved the mosque from demolition. The mosque now serves the 10,000 Muslims living in Woking and the wider community. During the past year of Covid 19 restrictions the Imam and the mosque team have reached out to people, providing meals for those in need, aid for the NHS and pastoral help and funeral services for the bereaved.
The mosque holds 60 worshippers, and is beautiful inside and out, glowing with colours like a jewel. Built by a Christian architect it includes elements of Moghul, Egyptian and Turkish architecture. The interior is decorated with the 99 different attributes of Allah in gold Arabic script, colourful carpets, and traditional features such as the clock showing the times of the five daily prayers, the mihrab (a semi-circular niche on the wall facing towards Mecca which indicates the direction of prayer) and minbar, from where the Imam gives his sermon.
Although there are now additional prayer halls to cater for the needs of the 2000 worshippers (in pre-Covid times!), the historic mosque is used for prayer every day. The Imam and mosque management team welcome visitors and for more information and a virtual tour of the interior please visit
The war in Syria has dropped out of the headlines in the media. But there is still an ongoing and disastrous humanitarian crisis, with millions of Syrians displaced and struggling to make a good life for themselves and their families. The global pandemic has made their situations worse. Many who have found a little work are day labourers whose source of employment has been cut off because of the Coronavirus restrictions. Camps are crowded and often lacking in facilities making it more difficult for refugees to safely distance or wash hands frequently.
But in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan the resourceful Syrian refugee women in the sewing class have turned their hands to making face masks. As well as earning a little income to support themselves and their families, the facemasks help the crowded community to stay safe.
The facemask is imprinted with the words “made with love by the LWF women in Za’atari Camp”. LWF is All We Can’s local partner in Za’atari Camp.
It was wonderful to receive this facemask from Za’atari, and most of all to know that it was “made with love”.
The VPRS is set to restart in January 2021, having closed earlier this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. According to Home Office statistics, since 2015, 19,750 refugees have come to the UK under the resettlement scheme, just short of the 20,000 places that were promised after the catastrophic displacement caused by the Syrian war.
Churches and other refugee agencies are calling on the government to commit to receiving numbers of refugees beyond that original target. There are still thousands more refugees in need of help who do not qualify under the VPRS scheme. During the past few years, refugees and asylum seekers have been attempting to enter the UK illegally in lorries, trains and using dangerously small boats to cross the Channel. The Government is being urged to create more safe and legal routes for refugees in a bid to alleviate the crisis in the Channel and elsewhere, although even that might not stop exploitation of vulnerable people desperate for a better life by people-trafficking gangs.
Too many lives have been lost already by traumatised people driven to risk everything to reach safety in the UK. Please remember the Iranian Kurdish family who lost their lives at the end of October as they attempted to cross the English Channel in an inadequate too-small boat (Post of November 3rd).
Jesus said : Love your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10.27)
Everyone is our neighbour, including refugees. Please pray that the UK will live up to its historic reputation as a safe haven for refugees and offer a welcome to those in need.
(See the article in the Church Times online November 19th for statement from church leaders re VPRS)
November is Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM), highlights the threat of Islamophobic hate crimes and showcases the positive contributions of British Muslims to the UK. (http://islamophobia-awareness.org).
IAM was founded in 2012 by leading Muslim organisations and aims to challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, working with Police and Crime Commissioners, local councils, MPs, Mosques, schools, community organisations and others. (The Methodist Recorder Nov 13th 2020)
It also turns a spotlight on the discrimination and abuse suffered by Muslims in this country. Many cases of hate crime go unreported and the annual campaign every November helps to provide encouragement to victims to come forward and make complaints about harassment and abusive treatment.
A case study on IAM’s website tells how Ali* (not his real name) had racist slurs painted on his fence; faeces being thrown onto his lawn and his car windows smashed. This abuse was coming from his neighbours.
He had approached the council, the housing association, and the police over the months, but had no real response.
IAM helped Ali to deal with the issues, by formulating a strategy, helping with administrative procedures and generally supporting him.
There is no place in society, or in our churches and places of worship, for discrimination or prejudice of any kind. Methodists are known as friends of all and enemies of none, and the abuse suffered by people like Ali* is totally unacceptable.