WCC provides safe place for stories of uprooted people

December 21, 1998

Over forty "padares" or meeting places provided opportunities for the issue of forcibly displaced people to be examined. Church groups from India, the Middle East, Great Britain, Belguim, Canada, the United States, Hungary, Uruguay, Switzerland, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe relayed accounts of extending hospitality to refugees, sometimes in the face of restrictive and even hostile governments who were more likely to close doors than extend the welcome to newcomers in their midst or as a supplement to the work of more generous governments whose scant resources could not allow them to do more. 

The Interchurch Committee for Refugees in Canada reported cases advanced by church groups and other immigrant rights organizations where the courts become the vehicle for redressing punitive government practices which would have separated families or summarily deported persons without a chance for a full hearing. The ecumenical efforts of Canadian churches have focused on establishing precedents which would undo the harsher laws now impacting asylum seekers in Canada. An Anglican Tamil leader told of desperate efforts to press churches into solidarity with a growing Tamil community seeking safety in Britain where their plight is compounded by increasing governmental reluctance to provide transitional aid to newcomers who need time to secure employment and "settle in." 

Several Tamil described in moving detail how their efforts to mobilize thousands of Tamil refugees in South India had produced remarkable self-help programs which had resulted in a relatively self-sufficient Tamil community in a country whose government had not officially welcomed them and had, in fact, denied them the assistance that would have ordinarily been theirs through the intervention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Since India does not formally recognize the UNHCR, Tamil refugees are assisted only to the extent that churches and other humanitarian organizations step in. This church group is helping to fill the void for a refugee community that has for years been struggling for identity and sustenance. 

Friends from All Saints Cathedral (Cairo) offered moving accounts of their ministry to displaced Sudanese whose limbo status in Egypt has been a long and painful saga. All Saints has been one of the few centers of aid for Sudanese who for years have awaited either resettlement or repatriation. An important lesson emerging from several of the accounts was the extent to which countries which are struggling with their own poverty have graciously received their uprooted neighbors. The churches in southern Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, have been among the most generous and creative in giving solace to fleeing neighbors. Churches in Uruguay have undertaken important initiatives in reaching out to the growing number of internally displaced persons in Latin America-again a response to a situation for which there is no formal international response since the mandate of the UNHCR does not extend to the internally displaced. 

In all these instances, people of faith have often been the sole source of assistance and advocacy for those who are clearly among our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors. This assistance is often rendered by groups who have meager resources with which to fill the void that governments and international agencies have allowed to exist. The church groups making presentations at Harare were taking care not only of their own but giving hospitality as widely as they could possibly stretch. The accounts at Harare were modern versions of the parable of the Good Samaritan - accepting uncritically those in need as neighbors and rendering whatever hospitality they could muster. 

The plethora of stories told in the padares reflects the universality of the crisis of uprooted persons and the fervor of refugees and their caregivers in pleading for the moral and material support needed from faith communities. Their presence at the WCC assembly was an attempt to give witness to their tragedy and to widen the network of witnesses and advocates. Harare was a safe arena where pleas to brothers and sisters could be made and where, therefore, virtually invisible crises made visible. 

The stories of forcibly displaced persons occurred against a backdrop of hearings, discussions, and formal statements about the ill effects of economic globalization and the international debt crisis. Included also was attention to the end of the Decade of Women and future work needed to bring justice and equality to the women of the world. Refugees were acknowledged as the victims of forces precipitated by the poverty and economic and political fragility of systems wrecked by oppressive debt repayment obligations and the globalization of financial systems which are often insensitive to the human consequences of their global maneuvering. Moreover, as women and children are the largest segment of the refugee population, and certainly the most vulnerable, the examination in one padare of the violence and trauma facing refugee women was a poignant sequel to earlier discussions about the victimization of women in so many parts of the world. 

The U.S. churches effectively brought home some of the critical issues facing churches as they are called to speak more fervently on behalf of displaced persons. A session on the "hard questions" facing those working with refugees generated serious comment about the seeming persistence and proliferation of refugee crises and the need to address root causes rather than just the aftermath of internal violence which produces "the forcibly displaced." Another U.S. sponsored session dramatized the various reasons often expressed for churches and church people not responding fully to these crises, giving attention to all of the excuses for stepping aside as the forcible displacement of persons looms as one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of the next millenium.

While little was offered through resolutions to underscore specific refugee situations, with the exception of attention to the ongoing tragedy of southern Sudanese, the plight of the uprooted was an issue interwoven with the broad measures adopted by the WCC as it contemplated its mission for the future. Some came to the Assembly hoping to secure support for their specific refugee crisis and were disappointed not to have their tragedy formally acknowledged. It is inevitable, however, that the many conversations that took place at Harare will be the catalyst for a stronger and clearer role for churches in lifting up the despair of refugees and their inextricable relationship to the broader themes of globalization and debt relief - themes that will surely occupy the WCC in the years ahead. 

--Richard Parkins is director of Episcopal Migration Ministries for the Episcopal Church.