Imagine? – I simply can’t.
Before Covid19 I worked in the Jesuit Refugee Centre in Wapping one day a week. Usually my job was to answer the door, and arrange for refugee-friends to access the help they need. Mostly they seemed to be calm, confident, and usually cheerful – yet mostly they have no home – perhaps just a space on somebody’s floor, or sometimes in the street or on night buses – and they may be short of food. And many of them are liable to sudden, unjust and unlimited detention.
I think I can just about imagine what that must be like.
What I can’t imagine is what happened before that. Most of the refugee-friends have been driven out of their country by threats of violence. Some have fled in fear of their life. Some have been tortured.
The growing realisation that you can no longer be safe in your own home – that no-one is going to protect you or your family.
Perhaps having to leave your family behind to ensure your own safety and survival.
The gathering together of only what you can carry, taking all the money that you have, ready to give to someone (who may not be trustworthy) to get you out of your home country.
Arrival in another country to meet hostile immigration staff.
Trying to find food, safety, and somewhere to sleep.
I can’t imagine having the courage and strength needed to face that.
I can’t imagine being like the mostly cheerful and resourceful refugee-friends who come to our day centre.
But what might they imagine when they set out to escape their intolerable lives?
Perhaps they imagine they will find a country where people being persecuted or ill-treated can come and be welcomed and cared for;
where they are believed when they say they need help and protection;
where they might find peace and companionship;
where they would be accompanied with love and understanding.
But when they arrive, they are treated with hostility, deprivation and even cruelty.
“’That world’s not ours’, that’s what we always say, “we’ll build another, but some other day.”’
Those powerful words by Estelle White in the hymn ‘There is a world . . .’ put a stop to their imagining. Another world – but some other day.
Ours is a country where we put a stop to all the refugee-friends’ imaginings and longings.
And we are the ones who do this.
Perhaps we can’t even imagine a world where desperately needy people find friendship and hope.
But there are some people who can see what’s happening, and who can imagine a different kind of country from the one we inhabit.
Perhaps they – we – could take to heart those words (slightly misquoted here) of Robert Kennedy:
Some people see things as they are, and ask: why? I imagine things that never were, and ask: why not?
Fr Mike has volunteered with the Jesuit Refugee Service for many years, as a welcome volunteer at our weekly drop-in day centre.
This written piece is part of the ‘JRS Imagines’ anthology, for Refugee Week. You can read more from the collection here.
Find out more about what’s happening at JRS UK during Refugee Week