By Andrew Popa, former refugee, current humanitarian, hopeful advocate
I became a refugee in 1989 when, after three months of twice-weekly visits to the secret communist police, I was told I had broken the law and would suffer consequences. My crime was attending a meeting with a fellow Christian from the USA who came to encourage the persecuted Church in Romania. To avoid going to prison or to a forced labor camp, my only option was to escape to freedom in the West.
After crossing the border in the middle of the night, through the forest, along rivers, over fields away from the beaten path, I ended up in a large refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria. It took a month. I was a refugee, housed in a camp with thousands of others from around the world in a land foreign to all of us, desperate for a chance to a normal life.
I met interesting people there. There were Kurdish refugees escaping Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons (this was just before the first Gulf war), Kosovars and Bosniaks escaping ethnic cleansing, Palestinians weary of prolonged conflict and oppression in their homeland, Africans running from dictators, and even Chinese and North Korean defectors. Each carried a heavy load, had encountered pain and death, and had seen more than humanity can bear. Torn between leaving homeland, family and friends behind, and the attraction of a safer future in an unknown country, they remained optimistic and hopeful that nothing could be worse than what they had been through.
That hope healed many of their wounds.
Exactly 25 years later, I found myself again in a refugee camp. This time I was in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, a nine-mile long camp housing over 32,000 refugees, and ready to receive up to 160,000 refugees. These refugees were from Syria, the newest and largest humanitarian crisis to date, with more than five million refugees registered by the UN as of 2017.
I was not a refugee anymore, but part of a humanitarian organization offering support to almost a million Syrian refugees. Masses of people fleeing destruction and pain, stuck in the middle of nowhere, desperate for a chance to a normal life.
Not one of the refugees that I talked to wanted to be there. Not one dreamt of becoming a refugee one day, and, if they had their choice, they would go home immediately. Many of them had at least one family member killed in the war; parents, siblings, or children lost to senseless bombs and bullets.
The most striking story came through the drawing of a seven-year old Syrian girl who landed in Greece in December 2015 after crossing the Mediterranean in an overcrowded dinghy with her family and many others. It was a two-month journey in the middle of winter.
Her drawing showed her stick-figure family in a barren field, with a helicopter shooting bullets in their direction, leaving behind dead stick-figure people in pools of blood. The picture had no sun or trees, just fear and violence.
This experience helps me in my current work at Mosaic serving people with intellectual disabilities in developing countries. Just like the many refugees I encountered, children with intellectual disabilities depend on humanity’s support. They are vulnerable in the midst of harsh environments and lack opportunities to reach their potential.
Being a refugee is not someone’s dream and life choice, but rather a response to a failed state and an act of aggression against fundamental human rights and values. Similarly, in too many places around the world, children with intellectual disabilities are deprived of these fundamental human rights to help them reach their potential.
To not recognize this, to not care about our fellow human’s suffering and pain, it is utterly un-Christ-like. I therefore take great comfort in Mosaic’s heritage of service to people with disabilities, a heritage rooted in spiritual values of loving our neighbor and God’s creation.
“The crucifixion of Christ… is every day. It is the thorn and scandal of racism, of violence, of hunger… as these mutilate and murder souls who were created to be kingdoms where Christ could dwell.” – Wendy Farley, “Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation.”