It seems that the media is not as interested anymore in the refugee situation. Since the beginning of this year about 500.000 refugees have made it to Germany (mostly) after leaving from Turkey or Greece and crossing Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria. To start with, they were ‘amateurs,’ i.e. having to improvise in order to see what will happen: they walked long days, they took public transportation, they slept in parks and un-used buildings, they stopped along the way to break down the journey. In the last 2-3 weeks, almost none of this happens. There are now available buses to transport them – and they cost a lot of money for crossing Macedonia and Serbia, up to 3,000 euros – until they arrive at the border with Serbia-Croatia (in Sid area) where a Transition Center was quickly organized. None are stopping in major cities or so. The only walking they do is a few hundred meters to the next country, where a bus is waiting for them. At this border crossing, about 5,000 refugees are processed daily (quick identity and health check). In maximum three hours they are again on a bus, this time provided by European Union, to Hungary, and from there on a train to Germany. Some 50% of these refugees are from Syria, while 30% from Afghanistan and 20% from Pakistan and other countries – according to the Transition Center director we spoke with. One would have expected that the influx will diminish, due to the rainy weather, but it has not, instead they got more organized in terms of transport so that they won’t need to be outside. The volatile spots are the borders, especially Macedonia and Serbia, where a new form of transportation needs to be paid for, but also Croatia and beyond, where check-ups and health issues might impede their desire to arrive quicker in Germany.
Romania, along with all EU countries, will have to receive their agreed upon quota of refugees. The government is now asking the NGOs to help out with expertise and logistics. Among much misunderstanding, negative portrayals in the media, and fear of Islamic (fundamentalist) ghettoes being formed in Europe, the general public is polarized: some warmly receive these refugees, while others are strongly against it. The various selected cities where these refugees will be placed are facing the challenge of acquiring knowledge and resources, as well as starting to positively influence the public, to receive and help integrate them. Such a city is almost certainly Arad, the town where we live in. Therefore, our church organized a conference to better understand what should be the Christian response to the situation.
The conference itself
The church invited the local representative to the Parliament, Mrs. Claudia Boghicevici to give us the political perspective; a lawyer and ex-mayor of the city, Mr. Silviu Ratiu, to present the juridical country-wise and EU-wise context; and Narcis Vlasin, to offer to us the history of this refugee crisis and a theological perspective. On the day of the conference, Mrs. Boghicevici came alongside the current mayor of Arad, Mr. Gheorghe Falca – who has just been debriefed in Bucharest by the Government and INGOs (along with other mayors) on the response needed to be organized.
After a short presentation of the history of the conflict in the Middle East and the resulting refugee crisis for the past four years, and the efforts of the neighboring countries (Turkey, Jorday, and Lebanon) the floor was given to Silviu Ratiu. He pointed out the existing legally legitimate status of these refugees to seek asylum in any country of their choosing – much more so, in Germany, who this spring clearly stated that they will receive anyone who wants to come. Then he showed his discontentment with Germany’s politics of making it compulsory for all EU countries on a shared quota. He said, ‘If I invited someone to my house, I won’t make it compulsory for my neighbors to house them overnight’ – and that’s exactly what Germany is doing!
Narcis Vlasin offered a biblically informed perspective on the refugee. He linked the refugees with the term ‘stranger’ in the Bible giving numerous examples (Adam and Eve, Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Israel while in Egypt and Assyria, Jeremiah, Jesus and his parents, the apostles and the early church) of forced displacement for reasons such as: sin, punishment, family misunderstanding, war, persecution, etc. It is clear from the Bible that God loves the refugees and takes care of them, fulfills His plan with them, and teaches us how to care for them. The primary Scriptural text was Matthew 25.31-40, where Jesus explicitly states that whoever receives a ‘stranger’ receives Him, and will inherit eternal life as a result.
A few biblical principles on the treatment of refugees were given: 1. God loves the refugees, protects and cares of them, without discrimination of country of origin; 2. God expects His people to love the refugees, to provide food and shelter and set aside a budget for their care; 3. God expects that the nations will receive the refugees, to protect and defend them from the attacker, and offer them a choice of where they want to live; 4. God promises blessings to the nation who receives the refugees, of being rewarded for their work, of having their prayers heard, of being protected, of health, and of inheriting eternal life; 5. God promises to not leave unpunished the nation what does not care for the refugees; and 6. God considers the welcoming of refugees as an indicator of our faith in Him – ‘Whoever receives these little ones, receives Me’ – Jesus said. If we don’t receive Jesus, how could we call ourselves Christians?
After a warmhearted speech in favor of receiving refugees by Mrs. Boghicevici, Gheorghe Falca, the mayor of Arad, was given the floor. He presented the information received at the debriefing in Bucharest, and wanted to give a positive perspective on the refugee crisis, bringing various arguments that Arad is ready to receive and integrate them. He especially looked at this process as having positive results for the Romanians, where by receiving refugees we will also be more inclined to forgive and forget our differences with the Hungarians and may help us work better at integrating the Gypsies.
The element of surprise to the participants was the presence of two Syrian refugees settled in Arad in the last month. They accepted Narcis Vlasin’s invitation to participate at the conference and had a few questions to ask, such as: why haven’t we learned back of our legal status in terms of work-permits? Why aren’t we given any financial support from the Government? How can we access the official health system? Where are these Romanian classes being taught? To all these questions, the representatives did not have specific answers, only hopes that things will work out for them.
The floor was open to questions, most of them focusing on the integration of these refugees and the church’s role in it. The ensuing conversation was decent but divergent in regard to the refugees’ quick integration into Romanian society and the government/church’s capability of doing a quality job in planning it. To many in the audience, the experience of the various countries in Europe who have a significant Islamic presence is not positive and shouldn’t be followed. Here is where the Moderator, pastor Vasile Duma, concluded the meeting by mentioning the Old Testament principle that ‘the stranger’ was obliged to submit to the law of the land (Jewish law) if he wanted to live among the people of God.
For a quick overview of the refugee situation, see below