On December 25, people around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Each year at this time, churches repeat the story of his parents, Mary and Joseph, as they were turned away in Bethlehem from the crowded inn and forced to take shelter in a stable. Once Jesus was born, Joseph received a warning in a dream to flee King Herod and travel to Egypt. The family of three managed to escape Herod’s massacre, which targeted all boys aged two and younger in Bethlehem (Matthew 2).
As they escaped persecution, the Holy Family became refugees. Sadly, they are neither the first nor the last to be displaced from their homes due to violence, war, or extreme conditions.
Recent images and news stories have highlighted the refugee crisis that continues in Europe as individuals flee Syria and the Middle East. Pope Francis acknowledged the magnitude of this crisis when he spoke before the U.S. Congress in September, recognizing that it presents governments with difficult challenges and decisions. At the same time, he encouraged Congress to “view [the refugees] as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
Viewing each refugee as a human person is a fitting message during this year-long Jubilee of Mercy, which began on December 8, 2015. During the year, Catholics draw special attention to their call to be present in the world where people are hurting, showing compassion to those most in need. This year provides the opportunity to be visible witnesses of the experience of mercy, including to refugees.
In the wake of recent terrorist attacks, however, Americans are reexamining how refugees are accepted into the country and how that process might impact U.S. security. In November, Governor Rick Snyder paused Michigan’s request for additional refugee visas that was announced back in the fall, highlighting his priority to “protect the safety of our residents.” State leaders in Michigan and across the country have been in dialogue with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding security and future resettlement efforts. In the meantime, refugee resettlement for those already approved to come to the United States continues, and the Catholic Church in Michigan, which has worked for decades to resettle refugees from war-torn countries in politically difficult parts of the world, stands ready to assist and welcome refugees in their resettlement efforts.
While there is much harsh rhetoric in the discussion regarding the refugee crisis, it is important to return to Pope Francis’s message of mercy and ask whether society is truly seeing the human face of the crisis. Safety and security must be primary concerns. But efforts to promote peace in these areas terrorized by war and violence, as well as efforts to “welcome the stranger” as Jesus taught, should also be at the forefront of our minds. The United States does not have to focus on one or the other- it can and should focus on both.
Those seeking to come to the United States as refugees are among the most scrutinized of all populations entering the country. Once the United Nations grants refugee status to an individual and refers them for resettlement in the United States, refugees face a vigorous vetting process that averages eighteen to twenty-four months. Refugees must undergo multiple background checks and fingerprint screenings, interviews and review from a number of agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the FBI, and the completion of medical screenings and cultural orientation, among other aspects. According to the U.S. State Department, 2,159 Syrian refugees have entered the United States since October 2011 through this process.
Nine voluntary organizations work with the government to handle refugee resettlement, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These organizations provide a number of services that recognize the dignity of these refugees, including picking the refugees up from the airport, finding them safe and affordable housing, providing English as a second language classes, and offering financial literacy and employment services, among others.
As the celebration of Christmas draws nearer and we are inspired by the model of the Holy Family, let us take the time to recognize the dignity in all those who are displaced this holiday season. Let us “[see] their faces and [listen] to their stories,” keeping in mind the need for love and mercy as they seek shelter and healing.