Syrian refugees and the Israelite exodus

Jan 29, 2016 by

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An interesting story about some Syrian refugees in Toronto has been making the rounds, discussing how many are beginning to feel hopeless stuck in their hotels waiting to be processed. The article specifically refers to the hotel used as a case as a “budget hotel.” This probably means small rooms crammed with large families, bland and repetitive food, being unable to talk to anybody without knowing English, and being unable to even take your kids outside because it’s not like you could pack winter boots with you from Syria (it’s been a mild winter, but they would still need some winter clothing).

Some people are responding by basically telling them to shut up and stop whining. They’ve made it this far, escaping war and probably years in refugee camps with worse conditions. I can sympathize with that a little bit. In the big picture, another maximum two months crowded in a budget hotel is not a huge deal after years it took them to get there. But that also doesn’t really do justice to what they’re going through. Take a moment to imagine you’ve escaped war, took a long journey, spent three years in a refugee camp, got the exciting news that you have been approved to come to Canada where you can finally create a life for your children… then you get here and you’re stuck in a 200-square-foot room with those four young children 24 hours a day, eating the same bulk processed food every day, your kids can’t play, you can’t talk to anyone except other refugees, and you have no idea when you’ll be allowed to leave.

As a simple example, I lived and worked in a 250-square-foot bachelor apartment for one summer. Just me — not sharing with a large family. It was brutal. I could go outside and had regular contact with many people, including my fiancée (now wife) and a church that quickly welcomed me. I also had a clear end in sight, knowing it was just for four months and I was saving a pile of money. I still gained 30 pounds that summer, struggled more with energy than usual, and the cabin fever was definitely setting in.

That is a recipe for cabin fever. Even without the years building up to it, there will be serious mental health repercussions of that. Adding that it comes right after you think you finally got free, that would be crushing.

This is a great parallel to the people of Israel in the desert after leaving Egypt. They’ve escaped slavery, and yet they continue to complain about God not doing enough for them. They even say they may as well go back to being slaves. Big picture, looking at them from our positions of comfort, we ask how they can be so stupid and ungrateful. They had serious problems to deal with, though. They were a band of nomads, former slaves with no military training and their families all with them. They could have been picked off by any of the neighboring nations at any time. They didn’t have food until they complained about it, at which point God began to provide something mysterious every day for 40 years. Moses often made decisions without their input and they were punished whenever they questioned that authority. Sure, they were technically free, but after a big dramatic escape to realize that your lives are only marginally improved while you wait another 40 years… that sucks.

I suggest we have sympathy on the Israelites instead of looking down our noses at them and scoffing. I suggest we do the same for these Syrian refugees. Am I really arrogant to think I would be doing much differently? I can safely say I would be a depressed wreck. They’ve already been through a lot more than I ever will in my lifetime. They are going through more right now than I quite possibly ever will in my lifetime — yeah, many Canadians have had worse, but as an educated middle-class white man with strong church communities, the odds of it happening to me are slim.

Even if I thought I’d do better in their (not-winter-ready) shoes, isn’t my job as a Christian to help regardless? If I’m going to love my neighbor, that includes my refugee neighbor suffering serious mental health consequences and lacking many practical needs. How about we applaud how much they have managed already and help them get to the finish line instead of mocking them for stumbling on their last hurdle?

Ryan Robinson lives in Waterloo, Ont., and attends The Meeting House, a Brethren in Christ multisite church. He blogs at, where this post originally appeared.

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