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Russia’s senseless and unprovoked attack on Ukraine has altered geopolitical alignments and economic networks in ways we could not imagine a month ago. A united Europe springs to the defense of its besieged neighbor. Global monetary systems slam their doors in Russia’s face. An untested and inexperienced president – recruited from the comedy clubs! — finds the strength to lead his people and speak to the world. When I wrote about the rise of autocrats such as Vladimir Putin in a Reformed Journal essay just before the assault began, I had no idea how quickly and violently my fears would be fulfilled.
Ukrainian armed forces and volunteers have stopped the invaders in their tracks, destroyed tanks and planes, and turned Putin’s blitzkrieg into a slow slog. The Russian Army that struck fear into European hearts for a generation shows that it has poor coordination, declining morale, and flagrant disregard for civilian lives.
How will this conflict end? Possible outcomes range from disastrous to catastrophic. One result is certain: a massive population movement. Two million Ukrainians have already fled to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Equal numbers, it is estimated, have trekked to Western Ukraine.
But here is another surprise: host governments are laying out the welcome mat. Border guards and police cooperate with churches and local communities to provide food, lodging, and medical care. “Persons fleeing from Ukraine from the armed conflict do not need to register or worry about formalities at reception points,” proclaims the government of Poland. Hungary’s open borders are a sharp departure from past policies. Tens of thousands reaching Germany receive three years’ legal residency and work permits.
In Western Europe, we are often reminded, church affiliation and membership have declined precipitously in the past half-century. But there has seldom been a more dramatic demonstration of how to welcome the stranger, as Jesus and the prophets taught us, than the EU’s newly opened borders.
It is tempting to contrast this response with the ignorant and vindictive rantings of US politicians and pundits about the criminals who would terrorize our cities if we honored our international obligations and opened our borders to those seeking refuge from violence at home.
I have seen first-hand the economic and ecological damage wreaked by a useless and ill-conceived border wall, and I have met some of those seeking asylum at an overnight shelter in Tucson, on their way to meet family members or church sponsors. What they seek is simply to live their lives and raise their families out of the shadow of violent death.
Instead let me point in the opposite direction: what is it like when a host country receives refugees with generosity and hospitality? Can a nation learn to welcome the stranger?
Seeing Ukrainians at crowded border crossings brought to mind a refugee camp near Arua in northern Uganda that I visited, with a group of students from my university, several years ago.
Our hosts and guides for a three-week study tour of church-assisted development projects were staff members of World Renew, the Christian Reformed international aid agency, which works with local churches (mostly Anglican and Pentecostal) to assess and achieve goals selected by community leaders. We met farmers promoting sustainable agriculture, village women pooling their resources for small business loans, and deacons of local churches assisting vulnerable families. And then, with the permission of local officials, we visited a resettlement compound for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This was a relatively small site for perhaps a thousand recent arrivals. The first sight that greeted us was an array of huge tents bearing acronyms such as “UNHCR” (United Nations High Commission on Refugees), “WFP” (World Food Program), and “LWF” (Lutheran World Relief).
On arrival we were surrounded by children eager to show us their creations: push toys from sticks and bottle caps, toy trucks from food cartons, traditional lyre-harps from soda bottles and pieces of string.
A Church of Uganda pastor and a member of the local council provided some background. A recent outbreak of killing and kidnapping in eastern Congo, where local warlords battle for control, had driven thousands from their homes. Crossing into Uganda, the refugees joined others who share their Kakwa culture and language, but they carried little but the clothes on their backs.
Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony may still be in hiding nearby with a small band of followers. My book We Are the Voice of the Grass tells the story of a courageous interfaith group, in another region of Uganda, that helped end the Lord’s Resistance Army uprising and heal the wounds of war there.
New arrivals at the camp received meals, sleeping mats, and temporary housing in the tents. Then they were given a plot of land nearby where they could plant crops and build a traditional house. Children would be enrolled in local schools, and parents could seek work in villages and towns nearby.
How long will they stay, we asked? We are all hoping for resolution of the Congolese civil wars, we were told, so that they can return home safely. But it may take years.
Not far away is the Rhino Camp settlement for refugees from South Sudan, with 130,000 residents. They, too, are likely to face years in exile. UNHCR reports that in 2021 Uganda was providing aid to 1.4 million refugees – more than four times the number living in the US.
How is it possible to provide for all these refugees, we asked, when so many Ugandans have so little? Our hosts seemed genuinely puzzled by the question. This is our obligation, they said, because Uganda is a party to the United Nations Charter and its covenants concerning treatment of refugees. These are our brothers and sisters, and they are not safe at home. So of course we welcome them, set aside land that they can farm, and help them prepare for whatever the future holds. Isn’t this what Jesus asks of us, added the pastor?
Many others help us, said our hosts: tents and food from the UN, land allocated by national and local authorities, and medical services from volunteers. World Renew has taken responsibility for sanitation in this and other camps, building latrines and handwashing stations. Working together, we lighten the burdens.
After our meeting we walked around the camp and the resettlement village. A local pastor was leading an informal outdoor prayer service outside a tent, praying in French and Kakwa while a hundred people added their own petitions. In the new village men were securing bundles of thatch to bamboo frameworks, forming roofs over newly built mud-walled houses. Men and women were pressing streambed mud into brick molds, and some of my students joined them. Their bricks were not up to snuff, but their attempts, and their mud-covered arms and faces and clothes, entertained the residents.
There is an enormous difference between helping a thousand people return to farming and coping with two million refugees fleeing an invasion. But I am struck by the similarity of spirit between Ugandan pastors and government officials, taking up the task of helping the newcomers without complaint or question, and the attitude of Ukraine’s neighbors today, united in extending open arms.
The news from Africa – and from Europe and Asia and the Americas – is so often dominated by violence and corruption. When I recall what I observed in a Ugandan refugee camp, I am inspired by the witness of church workers and government administrators and NGO workers, working arm in arm, reaching out to welcome and help the stranger.
Works of mercy may not stop tanks in their tracks, but they keep a flame of hope alight for those whom violence has driven from their homes.