Walking down a path on a late morning in the Calais Jungle (the refugee camp in France, destroyed last summer by authorities, where many seeking admission to the United Kingdom were waiting to get across the Englisch Channel), my companion Sam and I came across a man tinkering with a pair of roller skates. Before we could greet him, he was greeting us.
“I am Zohair, friend of the Prophet,” was his lead. Later he adds, “What are your names? What do they mean. This is tradition in Sudan, we always ask the meaning of your name.” He tells us this over the tea he made for us.
We stayed with Zohair for most of the morning. He had so much to say, he was a fun, cheerful, and deeply charismatic person in this very troubled place that was the Calais Jungle. He was my age, and had been quite ambitious and successful in his home country of Sudan. He shrugged lackadaisically when he told us about the quick change of events and circumstances that forced him to flee. “We have a saying in Sudan that ‘all the chiefs are in Calais.’” I looked around at our neighbors, making note of their probable chief status.
Zohair comes later to the topic of religion, he is pleased that we’re Christian. Like many Muslims new to Europe, he finds Christians a bit more relatable than those who don’t identify with any faith. He says, “What you have here in the West is amazing. You respect people, you respect life. We always say in Sudan –‘That is Islam, what they have there in the West! That is the dream of Islam!” The irony is not lost on him that the place in the world that he sees as living out the dream of Islam is seen by people on all sides as in some sense anti-Islamic.
We left Zohair after a long and fun visit, promising to come back again. A few hours later, that evening, I saw him again just outside the camp, racing down the road and grinning. He had managed to repair those roller skates.
Due to the executive order of President Trump this week, Zohair is now banned from entering my country, on the basis of his nationality and faith.
Last week I started a new German course in Vienna, and met a Syrian man named Wajih. He was middle-aged and stately. Somehow I sensed his gravitas them moment I sat next to him. He was my German conversation partner that day, and we spoke about our occupations. He told me he had been an engineer in Syria and managed a whole firm before he was forced to flee his country five years ago. He asked about my profession. I told him I worked with a religious nonprofit serving refugees, trying to gloss over the details and move to a new topic quickly.
Wajih was not having my reticence, and in his kind and authoritative way continued to ask detailed questions about my work. As it turned out he was a member and major volunteer at the Catholic Church in my same neighborhood. I tried to add that our focus as a religious organization was not proselytization, but to help all people. People must not be Christian to receive help or be a part of our community. He smiled, “But of course, there is no must with our God.”
After class Wajih asked me if I would be willing to tutor his daughter in English. Both of his children were at the top of their classes in Syria, but were suffering a crisis of confidence in the transition to Austria. He expressed the anxieties of a parent. He loves his children, and is trying to support them as best he can. He wonders if all of his efforts are enough. Perhaps, he thought, this tutoring would be one way to help.
Due to the executive order of President Trump this week, Wajih and his family are now banned from entering my country, on the basis of their nationality and (presumably) their faith.
My dear friend Hengameh is from Iran. Over the months she’s told brave stories of standing up for herself in her home country with grace and humor. I have seen her advocate for and support her friends here in Vienna that are in situations more precarious than her own. She bakes me apple cake from time to time, and she dreams of returning to University and of becoming an interpreter. She sometimes sends me excerpts of her writing, and secretly I hope she will also decide to become a writer.
Due to the executive order of President Trump this week, she is also now banned from entering my country, on the basis of her nationality and faith.
My friend Akram was born in Afghanistan. He was denied an education in his home country due to his ethnicity. He made it to Vienna, and dutifully attends classes each week to catch up and perfect his literacy and writing skills in Farsi. He greets me and speaks with me in English (his third language) every time I see him. A kinder or gentler spirit I have rarely known.
Due to the executive order of President Trump this week, he is now banned from entering my country, on the basis of his nationality and faith.
From abroad I now write to my fellow American citizens: this must be stopped. I am well aware that this is not the first of my home country’s violations of the rights, security, and dignity of minorities, foreigners, or citizens of Middle Eastern countries. The Trump administration’s actions this week do however constitute an escalation. Make no mistake, the escalation will continue.
It is time to stand up. I am here to stand with you and am always available as a resource and advocate.
And to my fellow US citizens that consider themselves Christians:
There are many Christians that I know personally who are tremendous role models on refugee issues, immigration, racism, and human rights. I am aware also that 81% of Christians (White Christians) voted for Donald Trump in this election. When I say this I speak to both groups.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew much about standing up for the oppressed even as it was wildly unpopular in his Protestant German mileu. He said this,
We must finally stop appealing to theology to justify our reserved silence about what the State is doing — for that is nothing but fear. ‘Open your mouth for the one who is voiceless’ — for who in the church today still remembers that that is the least of the Bible’s demands in times such as these?
In 1935 Bonhoeffer is also quoted saying this,
Only those who cry out for the Jews are permitted to sing Gregorian chants [hymns].
Replace Jews with the word Muslims and you have where we stand today.
Kieryn Wurts is an intern and part-time pastor with Projekt Gemeinde in Vienna (a student outreach project of the Austrian Baptist Union) working with refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. She has a degree in philosophy and religious studies from the University of Denver and graduated with distinction in 2015 with a special thesis project on the history of the emergent church in America.
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