Amid poverty, war and, occasionally, massacre, the Presbyterians in the town of Polhó in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas are singing for their lives. The language of the Tzotzil Maya has a special lyrical quality. Sentences float like melodies in dialogue, rising and falling so that one speaker's tones spill over into the responses of the next.
Fernando did not look like what I thought a refugee should look like. He was fat, for one thing. The beige polyester suit he wore was tight on him, especially around the belly. He reeked of cologne. He had one gold front tooth and around his neck was a matching gold chain. The pendant dangling from the chain appeared to be a phallus.
In the movie District 9, an alien spaceship stalls in the skies above Johannesburg. After three months with no communication, South Africans decide to board the ship, only to find a million aliens who need rescuing. They move them to District 9, an area that’s a cross between a township and a refugee camp.
In the fall of 2006, when Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, began welcoming refugees from Burma, we had no idea what we were getting into. In the spring of 2007 there were 30 refugees from Burma in Rochester; by 2007 there were 200, and by now there are almost 400, with many more expected. Rochester is a microcosm of what is happening quietly across this continent and in many other nations.
One of the lesser-known calamities of the Iraq war is the flood of refugees it has produced. According to United Nations officials, about 2 million Iraqis have fled the country since the start of the war—mostly to Jordan and Syria—and almost as many Iraqis have been displaced inside their own country.
A handful of the “lost boys of Sudan”—the 26,000 children who fled civil war on foot—are on the big screen endearing themselves to American audiences. Four thousand were delivered from a United Nations refugee camp to various communities in the U.S. in 2001. A few of them are the subjects of a just-released National Geographic documentary, God Grew Tired of Us.
After weeks of Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, waves of people from southern Lebanon holding white flags continued to travel toward Beirut as major relief and church agencies warned that the country faces a humanitarian disaster because of severe difficulties in providing assistance.
On my last night in Nyala, in southern Darfur, convoys of combat-ready security forces circled the streets of the city, which has become part fortress, part camp for the displaced, and part home for dozens of international humanitarian groups.
My installation as pastor at a Manhattan congregation began with a festive outdoor procession weaving through public housing projects and then looping around to the parking lot near the pricey apartments and condos on the other side of the street. We wanted the procession to declare our commitment to both sides of the street.