Welcoming immigrants while stepping on by

Nov 2, 2015 by

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God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. — Deuteronomy 10:18

10,000 steps every day. That’s just over five miles. I have a dogged determinedness to reach my goal each and every day. And I’ve reached my goal every day since the beginning of last June.

In late October I was in O’Hare international airport in Chicago on my way to Indonesia. I knew I would have difficulty reaching my daily goal if I didn’t do some serious walking in the airport terminal. Too much sitting in airplanes was ahead.

And so I was moving at quite a clip through the O’Hare concourses trying to get in as many steps as possible before my flight boarded.

Then I passed by a family that, even at the rate I was moving, I noticed looked quite out of place. From Africa, the way it looked. All five family members had on heavy winter coats. This on what was a mild October day in the Chicago area.

And so I stopped, steps or not, to take a closer look. When I did look closer, I saw that the family that caught my eye was actually standing with two other families. These two, from their dress, looked like they were somewhere from the Middle East. And all dozen people or so looked very much alone, frightened almost, children clinging to their parents, all three families standing alone in a very busy airport.

And then I see the large see-through plastic holders around each person’s neck with formal looking papers inside. And now I finally get it. These people are officially migrating from another part of the world, part of our immigration quota, I am betting. Alone, with nothing but the shopping bags and weathered suitcases they hold in their hands.

I walk up to the African man and try to communicate a welcome to him, but have little success. My broad smile and open arms are just serving to confuse his entire family.

A TSA agent approaches the group and motions them to follow him down the concourse in the same direction I am heading as well. I stand there and stare after the families departing, wondering what it could possibly feel like to leave everything familiar, however bad it was in their home country, for a completely new, unfamiliar country with not a friend or a dollar in hand.

Walking on down the concourse, I quickly catch up to the group strangling in a line behind the TSA agent and I step on by. When I pass the African father, I give him a big thumbs up (who knows what that means in his own culture?) and the slight smile on his face makes me think he finally understands that I am only trying to encourage him and wish he and his family well.

This year, in addition to the 12 people I just met in the O’Hare airport, there are more than 50 million people in the world displaced from their homes, 11 million in Syria alone. And while our Congress argues about whether we can accept 10,000 Syrian refugees into our country, hundreds of thousands of families are fleeing the war in Syria for Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and eventually making their way across the water to Europe and to any other country who will have them.

In Africa, too, there are many tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war and famine, a few, like the family I saw, who are eventually legally allowed entry into my country.

I wonder what this African family will experience when they reach their final destination in the United States? Will they receive hospitality and welcome as I experience when I travel virtually anywhere all over the world? I say a prayer and hope it will be so.

J Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He blogs at Thinking Out Loud, where this first appeared.

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