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I feel a sense of responsibility and urgency to write about the immigrant and refugee experience, especially with all that we are seeing in the news. For some of you, this may mean a continued exploration of knowing yourselves and living authentically (as discussed in recent posts). For others, immigrant and refugee experiences may be something you have only read about or learned about from friends. 

Either way, my hope is to inspire a sense of curiosity, understanding, and empathy. 

One important clarification before we dive in, refugees and immigrants are not, by definition, the same. Refugees, according to the UN, are people “fleeing armed conflict or persecution.” Immigrants (migrants) are people that choose to move. Though in many cases, they may also be fleeing poverty, violence, oppression, and discrimination.

As a daughter of an immigrant, married to an immigrant, I only have a secondhand understanding of the experience of leaving a home country to start a new life, but I consider it an important part of my story. When I was little, my mother told many stories about the Philippines and her journey here. Some were joyful, some sad.

She told me about crying in the bedroom when she first arrived in the U.S., missing everyone and everything that she left behind at home, even though she loved my dad very much and wanted to be with him here in America. She had not been able to visit her close relatives and friends to say goodbye because she had left quickly and without much money. She wasn’t able to return until almost 10 years later.  

I can’t imagine the experience of leaving your home would ever be simple, no matter the reasons why. Wouldn’t the journey always be filled with a mix of grief, fear, hope, and faith? So many people share similar journeys – many much more difficult and tragic than my mother’s – of living between two worlds and of holding on to those stories for their whole lives. 

A few weeks ago I watched the Oscar-nominated* Danish animated documentary, Flee, about an Afghan recounting his childhood refugee journey for the first time as an adult. I appreciated how well the film captured the complexity of navigating multiple cultures, circumstances, and relationships with parents, siblings, lovers, police, traffickers, and strangers over time – all coupled with the constant uncertainty of what would come next. The story, honestly and creatively told, had a way of deepening my empathy.

So I plan to take in more stories.

This week marks the beginning of Lent, a time that I enjoy because of its austere and reflective nature. As a Lenten prayer practice, I am reading a Bible study called Far From Home* exploring migration stories in the Bible. It was created for an organization called Women of Welcome, a community dedicated to understanding the immigrant and refugee experience. I was struck by the opening letter:

“Millions of people across the globe are living a life far from home. Some by choice, some by force…over 30 million people are considered refugees or asylum seekers, and another 48 million are internally displaced in their home countries. Add in a few other people groups from destabilized nations and the total jumps to approximately 84 million people forcibly displaced from their homes.”

Through thoughtful questions, the study encourages the reader to reflect on their own experiences alongside those in the Bible. This first week is about Abram and Sarai and asks, “Have you ever had to leave everything behind? If so, what was that like for you? Have you ever had to put your privileges and abilities aside to “bet your family’s entire future” solely on God’s faithfulness?”

Whether it is with Bible stories, a book, news articles, or someone in your life, these are questions worth considering in order to better understand our neighbors and ourselves. 

*Flee is reportedly the first film to be simultaneously eligible for consideration in the Oscar categories for Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and International Feature Film.

*Far From Home is a Bible study written by Catherine McNiel for the Women of Welcome Community (Spring 2022). Content contributors: Matthew Soerens and Bri Stensrud. General editor: Lesley Tsai.