Television coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II into our living rooms.
As of Tuesday, 2 million people had fled the country, and UN officials expect the crisis to only get worse as the war continues.
As horrifying as the pictures on TV are, as grave as the situation in Ukraine is, please don’t miss this: it represents only a fraction of a worldwide problem that has been with us for thousands of years.
What is a refugee?
The people of Israel were refugees when they fled from Egypt because of Pharaoh’s harsh rule. Jesus and his family were refugees when they fled to Egypt to escape from King Herod.
Today, international law defines the term refugee rather narrowly.
“A refugee is someone who is forced to flee their home country to escape persecution or a serious threat to their life, physical integrity or freedom,” the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. “This may be linked to their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership of a social group. But also to situations of conflict, violence or public disorder.”
Under this definition, according to the most recent UN statistics, there are 26.4 million refugees around the world. But when you include people who have been displaced within their own countries and others seeking asylum, the number swells to 82.4 million.
I feel for these people because I was once one of them.
The refugee next door
I fled Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein’s harsh rule, came to the United States in 1982, and founded a ministry to refugees here.
If your heart goes out to Ukrainian refugees, and it should, please look with a new perspective at the refugees in our midst, as well as the ones in other countries.
Refugees are human beings created in the image of God just like you. Remember Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (NRSV).
If you’re American, unless you are 100 percent Native American, one of your ancestors was an immigrant.
These refugees shouldn’t be confused with immigrants entering the country illegally through our southern border. Many of these refugees have been waiting years to legally enter the United States.
Every refugee who comes here struggles when it comes to starting a new life. The food is different, the laws are unfamiliar, jobs are tough to find, and English is hard to learn.
The “gatekeepers” of culture
Many refugees are persecuted Christians who suffer while waiting to find a nation that accepts them. As they wait, some are offered a chance to resettle in a nation where they have no family connections.
For example, they may be offered resettlement in Portugal while their loved ones are in the United States, Australia, or Canada, leading to yet another separation from loved ones and emotional hardship until they are granted access to their desired country.
From a worldly perspective, refugees may look like a liability to our nation. However, in actuality, they are an incredible asset to God’s kingdom. Refugees are the “gatekeepers” of cultures all over the world—men and women through whom God can reach the least-reached people of the world with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20 says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Making disciples of all nations no longer means you have to travel across the globe. People from nations you could never go to and preach the gospel are right here in our backyard.
Maybe the Lord is not calling you to help twelve hundred refugees as Oskar Schindler did in Nazi Germany—perhaps it is just one or two.
But I can tell you from experience that the ones you impact will never, ever forget the difference you make.