For World Refugee Day, CAFOD communications officer, Mark Chamberlain reflects on attitudes towards refugees
In the past fortnight a time machine took me back to the late 1980s. I was sitting watching my favourite tea-time programme: a re-run, in glorious Technicolor, of a McCarthy-era, American sci-fi series.
The meek, unsuspecting earthlings were being duped again, by the cold, cunning aliens. More invaders had landed in their town and were taking over. But the only people that could see this were a small boy who kept shouting for people to listen…and me.
The time machine
The time machine I used wasn’t a complex computer, or salvaged alien technology, it was a lot more basic: two consecutive front pages of a national newspaper. The headlines in fact, just a verb and noun.
‘Invade.’ ‘The Invaders.’
The paper was kindly performing its role as the only wise one in the town – the small boy who shouts, “Save yourselves! They’re coming! Save yourselves!”
Invading is not running for your life
Let’s be clear, someone who invades has a home. To invade is an act of aggression. It is not running for your life because your home and its entire contents have been bombed to rubble.
I have the papers with me now and I’m trying to reconcile them with a girl I met in Beirut. Alaa is 13 and she lives with her father, mother, three brothers and one sister in just two rooms.
Alaa remembers everything: the horror of war, the absolute fear of running for her life, the hopelessness of living as a refugee. Because she remembers, she needs counselling. But she is not alone, a generation of children who have run from war and now live as refugees could face a lifetime of psychological scars because of their experiences.
Alaa and I talked for a while. We talked about the French lessons she was taking at the Caritas Migrant Centre in Beirut. She told me about what she likes to read and where she lives. When I asked about her family, she cried.
Children are frightened
I asked her teacher, 27-year-old Jessica Frem about this: “The children come here and they are often very frightened. Some cry when they talk about their stories. Others haven’t got to that stage yet and just won’t talk.”
“What do you like to do most?” I asked Alaa.
She smiled: “I like the weekend because I help give out things for needy families – what we used to be. I help with blankets and clothes and things.
“I want to do this because I have suffered. I have been in this situation and I don’t want others to suffer.”
We sat talking about her studies. Alaa’s French is fantastic. The Migrant Centre, which is supported by CAFOD, is a lifeline for her. The French classes are a way for Alaa and other people from Syria and Iraq to integrate into the Francophone country. They are also a way to bring normality to their lives – it’s a small part of a very long healing process.
“I really want to be a doctor,” Alaa told me. “But most of all, I want to go home.”
I read the headlines again and still can’t match the idea of an ‘invader’ with Alaa, her family, the other children in Beirut and the families I met in the camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. There is no way Alaa wants to be in the situation she is in. There is no way people want to leave everything behind, to start a new life in a country they don’t know unless they have no choice. And she would be devastated to learn that she is an invader – a cunning outsider who wants to slowly destroy a host country’s way of life.
The cold, calculating aliens reveal themselves
So, perhaps the headlines are the cold, calculating aliens; the invaders. People are accepting: cultures around the world have a history of welcoming the stranger. The idea of closing our doors to people who need refuge the most, seems to be the greatest threat to our way of life. The fear that the headlines invoke is the Martian death ray that will turn us all into cold, uncaring zombies. And perhaps Alaa and children like her who want to help others are the little boy, who, instead of shouting, ‘They’re coming! They’re coming! Run for your lives!’ are quietly saying to us, ‘We must help.’
It’s time to listen to Alaa and to hear her words. We have to resist the invaders – the ideas of hatred. We must dodge the death rays of fear and preserve our humanity, preserve our global culture of welcoming.
Learn more from our refugee resources for children