Thinking Anew – On the outside looking in

Being on the margins we learn many things otherwise hidden from us

I am glad I’m not a politician. I would not be good at making decisions around who may or may not be granted refugee status. We can take great comfort from knowing that our role as people of faith is to treat everyone we encounter as if they were our own family, our own mother or father or sister or brother or child, to offer hospitality. For Christians, we are to practise seeing the face of Christ in every person who crosses our path.

A few days ago we got wonderful news. I was walking the dogs when I got a phone call from my friend Firat. Firat is from Kurdistan in Turkey and he just found out that he has been granted leave to remain here in the UK – refugee status. Joyous news! Yet although this moment has been longed-for for years, it is not a happy ending so much as a stressful beginning. He has 28 days to navigate relocating, finding a job, opening a bank account – the beginning of a challenging new chapter in his life after years of enforced passivity. It is also a time which can highlight the trauma, loss and loneliness of enforced separation from family and homeland.

I first met Firat four years ago when his initial application for asylum had been refused. He was discouraged and anxious as he mounted an appeal (an uphill struggle without money or good English) and then ... he waited. A year passed, no news, no hearing date, another year passed, then another (Covid did not help matters) and then finally, just before Christmas, his appeal hearing took place. After over four years of not being allowed to work or study, living on the bread-line, Firat can at last put down roots.

Four years of waiting in enforced idleness in the prime of one's life seems to me shockingly wasteful. I reflect on how I would feel if this were my son, who himself is overseas. Over Christmas our daughter introduced us to a wonderful Scottish film called Limbo about asylum-seekers in Orkney. It was witty and sad and courageous and captured perfectly the boredom and featurelessness of this open-ended season of waiting.

I have had a number of friends down the years who have gone through this appeal process. One family I know and love – from Pakistan – waited seven years. Their three little girls went through the school system (children have different rights) while their mum and dad waited at home, locked out of mainstream life, unable to contribute their considerable skills and talents, forbidden to earn their keep.

Being on the outside, looking in – for some this is rarely experienced, while others live this on a daily basis for any number of reasons: disability, homelessness, illiteracy, to name just three. Being on the margins we learn many things otherwise hidden from us, often things we would rather not know.

Tomorrow’s gospel reading is that crazy sermon on the mount in which Jesus explicitly preaches good news to the poor. “Happy are the poor, the hated, the grief-stricken, the excluded, the rejected!”, he proclaims. “Rejoice! Leap for joy! Your very existence is an unveiling of God’s face!”

If we are well-fed and comfortable we suddenly find that it is we who are on the outside looking in, a classic Kingdom reversal by Jesus. I am well aware that unless I experience a visceral need of God, I can so easily find myself seduced into believing myself to be invulnerable and taking credit for my good fortune. Yet which of us would choose to be poor, hated and grief-stricken if we didn’t have to be? Certainly not me.

There is a Jewish proverb, “Before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.’” As a bare minimum (whether we are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in) let us see every man, woman and child we encounter as one of our own, as someone in whom we see the face of the Christ whom we love.