“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
“Naked, and ye clothed me. …
“… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”1
There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, which means that “1 in every 122 humans … has been forced to flee their homes,”2 and half of these are children.3 It is shocking to consider the numbers involved and to reflect on what this means in each individual life. My current assignment is in Europe, where one and a quarter million of these refugees have arrived over the last year from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa.4 We see many of them coming with only the clothes they are wearing and what they can carry in one small bag. A large proportion of them are well educated, and all have had to abandon homes, schools, and jobs.
Under the direction of the First Presidency, the Church is working with 75 organizations in 17 European countries. These organizations range from large international institutions to small community initiatives, from government agencies to faith-based and secular charities. We are fortunate to partner with and learn from others who have been working with refugees around the world for many years.
As members of the Church, as a people, we don’t have to look back far in our history to reflect on times when we were refugees, violently driven from homes and farms over and over again. Last weekend in speaking of refugees, Sister Linda Burton asked the women of the Church to consider, “What if their story were my story?”5 Their story is our story, not that many years ago.
There are highly charged arguments in governments and across society regarding what the definition of a refugee is and what should be done to assist the refugees. My remarks are not intended in any way to form part of that heated discussion, nor to comment on immigration policy, but rather to focus on the people who have been driven from their homes and their countries by wars that they had no hand in starting.
The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee—He was one. As a young child, Jesus and His family fled to Egypt to escape the murderous swords of Herod. And at various points in His ministry, Jesus found Himself threatened and His life in danger, ultimately submitting to the designs of evil men who had plotted His death. Perhaps, then, it is all the more remarkable to us that He repeatedly taught us to love one another, to love as He loves, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Truly, “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”6 and to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.”7
It has been inspiring to witness what Church members from around the world have generously donated to help these individuals and families who have lost so much. Across Europe specifically, I have seen many members of the Church who have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul as they have responded to that deep, innate desire to reach out and serve those in such extreme need around them. The Church has provided shelter and medical care. Stakes and missions have assembled many thousands of hygiene kits. Other stakes have provided food and water, clothing, waterproof coats, bicycles, books, backpacks, reading glasses, and much more.
Individuals from Scotland to Sicily have stepped in to every conceivable role. Doctors and nurses have volunteered their services at the point where refugees arrive soaked, chilled, and often traumatized from their water crossings. As refugees begin the resettlement process, local members are helping them learn the language of their host country, while others are lifting the spirits of both children and parents by providing toys, art supplies, music, and play. Some are taking donated yarn, knitting needles, and crochet hooks and teaching these skills to local refugees old and young.
Seasoned members of the Church who have given years of service and leadership attest to the fact that ministering to these people so immediately in need has provided the richest, most fulfilling experience in their service so far.
The reality of these situations must be seen to be believed. In winter I met, amongst many others, a pregnant woman from Syria in a refugee transit camp desperately seeking assurance that she would not need to deliver her baby on the cold floors of the vast hall where she was housed. Back in Syria she had been a university professor. And in Greece I spoke with a family still wet, shivering, and frightened from their crossing in a small rubber boat from Turkey. After looking into their eyes and hearing their stories, both of the terror they had fled and of their perilous journey to find refuge, I will never be the same.
Extending care and aid is a vast range of dedicated relief workers, many of them volunteers. I saw in action a member of the Church who, for many months, worked through the night, providing for the most immediate needs of those arriving from Turkey into Greece. Among countless other endeavors, she administered first aid to those in most critical medical need; she saw that the women and children traveling alone were cared for; she held those who had been bereaved along the way and did her best to allocate limited resources to limitless need. She, as so many like her, has been a literal ministering angel, whose deeds are not forgotten by those she cared for, nor by the Lord, on whose errand she was.
All who have given of themselves to relieve the suffering around them are much like the people of Alma: “And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; … they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”8
We must be careful that news of the refugees’ plight does not somehow become commonplace when the initial shock wears off and yet the wars continue and the families keep coming. Millions of refugees worldwide, whose stories no longer make the news, are still in desperate need of help.
If you are asking, “What can I do?” let us first remember that we should not serve at the expense of our families and other responsibilities,9 nor should we expect our leaders to organize projects for us. But as youth, men, women, and families, we can join in this great humanitarian endeavor.
In response to the invitation from the First Presidency to participate in Christlike service to refugees worldwide,10 the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary have organized a relief effort entitled “I Was a Stranger.” Sister Burton introduced this to the women of the Church last weekend in the general women’s session. There are multiple helpful ideas, resources, and suggestions for service on IWasAStranger.lds.org.
Begin on your knees in prayer. Then think in terms of doing something close to home, in your own community, where you will find people who need help in adapting to their new circumstances. The ultimate aim is their rehabilitation to an industrious and self-reliant life.
The possibilities for us to lend a hand and be a friend are endless. You might help resettled refugees learn their host country language, update their work skills, or practice job interviewing. You could offer to mentor a family or a single mother as they transition to an unfamiliar culture, even with something as simple as accompanying them to the grocery store or the school. Some wards and stakes have existing trusted organizations to partner with. And, according to your circumstances, you can give to the Church’s extraordinary humanitarian effort.
Additionally, each one of us can increase our awareness of the world events that drive these families from their homes. We must take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions. Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration.
The Lord has instructed us that the stakes of Zion are to be “a defense” and “a refuge from the storm.”11 We have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love.”12
Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.