Justice for refugees

 In Loving our Neighbour, Refugee Crisis

Justice for refugees

Nicole James

“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Early OM outreaches focused on evangelism but, as workers spread throughout the world, they encountered situations requiring something more. Today, in some areas, workers offer practical aid—to all people, regardless of religious background or affiliation—while ensuring that those receiving help have both the opportunity to hear about Jesus and a clear pathway to becoming part of a vibrant community of Jesus followers.

Rescuing Vietnamese refugees at sea

In 1980, whilst on watch aboard Logos, Tom Dyer spotted a boat carrying 52 Vietnamese refugees. When the ship’s captain invited them on board, the Philippines-bound refugees had been at sea for 11 days, running out of supplies and most of their water. The next day, he spotted another boat with 41 Vietnamese refugees. Although Logos’ maximum occupancy was 144 people, the captain again welcomed the refugees.

“By the time we had loaded these 93 extra passengers, we were over 200 people on board, including our crew and staff. Many of the boat people were exhausted and weak,” Dyer described.

Logos docked in Thailand, where OM approached the British consul in Bangkok and the Foreign Office in London. The refugees stayed on board for eight weeks, sleeping in the dining room and spending days on deck. The UN provided food and, finally, the British government guaranteed their resettlement.

Responding to refugees in Western and Central Asia

The same year, a long-term worker sought to start a relief organisation within OM to help Afghan refugees in Pakistan. As OM was focused on evangelism and literature distribution, its leadership was not prepared to incorporate relief and development work. However, OM Founder George Verwer gave his blessing to start an independent NGO, which grew to around 35 adults, including several OMers, and up to 350 local staff, serving five to eight million Afghans fleeing Soviet oppression; it continues community development and disability work in that region today.

In 1991, Julyan Lidstone, ambassador for OM Muslim Ministries, visited a camp along Turkey’s southern border, where Kurdish refugees had fled Saddam Hussein. Lidstone found desperate, unsanitary conditions and people with little hope of survival. He had received international aid offers and knew God wanted to help the Kurds by sending believers to serve them.

By then, OM’s thinking had changed to allow relief and development work within the organisation. “God’s response to the suffering of the world was first to send His Son, and now He wants to send us. When we allow His compassion to move us into action, we will see His glory in a new way,” Lidstone said.

Meeting Mozambican refugees in South Africa

In the mid-’80s, tens of thousands of Mozambicans fled to South Africa to escape civil war. After a four-day journey crossing Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in the world, 80,000 refugees settled near an OM team.

OM Associate International Director Peter Tarantal said, “Driven by compassion for these helpless people, and because we saw opportunity to get the wider church in South Africa involved, we began outreach programmes in a number of refugee camps. We soon realised that it was impossible to share the gospel meaningfully with someone who is hungry. Justice for refugees meant people caring for them, providing refuge and speaking up on their behalf. Through discipleship and training, we gave them a sense of dignity.”

OM started a feeding programme that developed into full-scale relief and development. The team also planted 10 churches; some are still thriving, Tarantal said. “The justice experience with refugees had a major impact on our ministry throughout Africa. [Today] it is one of the key pillars of the ministry.”

Serving Syrian refugees in the Near East and Europe

In context of the current Syrian refugee crisis resulting from ongoing civil war, one long-term worker suggested, “We as workers can’t offer these precious people the hope of justice, but rather the free gift of mercy. We offer them what we received: the undeserved gift of God, the forgiveness and then the ability to forgive and be free forever from the need for getting a ‘fair shake.’”

During the past five years, OM has partnered with more than 40 churches in the Near East with over 20 projects. “We were able to join what God was doing to redeem this awful situation in really significant ways,” the OM Near East Field Leader said. Twenty-five to 30 OM workers directly serve refugees through income-generating projects, children’s programmes, visits, Bible studies, education initiatives and follow-up through local churches. OM continues to fund partner churches that distribute food to those with the least access and greatest need.

Within OM Europe, more than 10 countries have ongoing projects serving refugees alongside churches. For eight years, OM has made bi-monthly visits to Bicske refugee camp in Hungary. Since 2013, OM has served alongside two churches in Athens, Greece, participating in feeding programmes for arriving refugees. Throughout summer 2015, when refugees began to overwhelm the Greek islands, OM stepped up its relief, recruiting a steady stream of short-term volunteers and partnering with additional churches to meet increasing needs. OM teams in Austria and Germany have developed teams reaching out to refugees, while others have visited them, taught language classes and assisted with practical tasks, like filling out official forms.

What can we do?

“Justice in OM is a critical issue,” Tarantal stated. “Without standing for and living out justice in everything we do, there is a massive hole in our gospel.”

*Name changed

Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.

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