This song and video was written and put together by Helen Mottee, a friend of a friend (Phil Warner), working in Hong Kong for a unique organisation called Crossroads International. A few years ago, Bob Geldof & Midge Ure asked the west to answer the unsettling question, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ A fair point, and it certainly generated much (if short-lived) soul-searching about our materialistic world. But the catastrophes exemplified by the Ethiopian famine of 84 haven’t gone away. And in some ways, many are far worse than ever before. The global catastrophe of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is a case in point. So Helen Mottee’s question is not simply a matter of “Do you know about them?” but “do you know what it’s like?” Well of course, unless we’ve been through it, there’s no way we can know. But that is no excuse for not being concerned about such things. Watch and learn:
As someone who carries a British passport, I’m blasé about passing through customs without much of a hassle. Customs are an inconvenience not a dread. But I’ll never forget what it wasliketo travel to Europe from Uganda with a dear friend, John, a refugee from Congo. He was carrying a much sort after UNHCR passport, because technically at the time he had no nationality. (And if, for whatever reason, he ever set foot back in Congo, he would automatically forfeit it.) This special blue, refugee passport made it possible to travel, but it didn’t necessarily make it straightforward to travel. A few little things happened on our journey which for John were totally uneventful, but which we all too eye-opening for me.
While we waited at check in at Entebbe airport, some border guards came up to us and asked to see John’s documents. They muttered to themselves and then said they had to inspect them. They told us to sit down and they pottered off to some office. Everything in the passport was correct and he had a valid UK visa. But even being in possession of such a passport made him suspect. We had to wait for a very long (and for me, tense) 45 minutes or so before they returned and gave them back.
Then there were complications with the journey. It just so happened that there was a lot of snow at Heathrow (clearly the wrong kind), so our direct flight from Entebbe was cancelled. It was a stress because we had an engagement in Oxford that we had to get to. But we managed to get onto a Sabena flight to Brussels later that day, with the hope of finding another connection once we got there (as there was no knowing when Heathrow would reopen). That was fine – but once we got to Belgium we struggled to get a flight without a long wait in transit. So I contemplated us getting the Eurostar train – but then another refugee reality hit home. Because Congo is a former colony, Belgium has an agreement with DRC whereby they will never take in Congolese refugees. To get to the Eurostar, we’d need to cross the city, which would require a visa for John – which he would never ever get even if he’d applied months before. This meant that we were contemplating a long wait without even being able to leave the departure lounge to go to on onsite hotel. Fortunately for us, Heathrow then had the right kind of snow and was opened very soon. We got the next flight within a short space of time.
But on arrival at Heathrow, we of course had customs to navigate. Getting John’s UK visa back in Kampala had been no small thing in itself. I had to produce evidence of my own bank accounts, plans, our itinerary (we were on a fund-raising trip for the college I taught in) and addresses of everywhere we would be staying. I also had to pledge that i would be with him every day of our 10 day trip. Having done all this, we had the longed for stamp in his passport (50% of applicants at the British High Commission fail to get even this, regardless of the validity of their trips). But at Heathrow, we had to go through it all over again. It helped a bit that I got John to come in the queue with me, and so could vouch for him as he was questioned. I should say that the officer was very polite and helpful, and was simply doing his job. We got through eventually without a worry so that was fine.
Now I’m certainly not naive enough to think that we can do without all these safeguards or hurdles. But what it brought home to me was simply the nerve one needs to do anything, let alone travel, with this constantly hanging over you. As someone who has posted flippantly about the stress of going through customs before, it is not something I would relish at all. And John is one of the LUCKY ones! He had his passport. That took years of bureaucracy, patience, luck and playing by the rules. There are millions who have nothing like this sort of security.
But of course, whether we like it or not, this time of year the Christmas story bursts our security bubbles because it rubs our noses (if we choose to allow it) in the simplefact that Jesus was born as a refugee himself. Not only were his family away from home when he was born (not quite internally displaced, but not exactly in Bethlehem for personal convenience), but as soon as the coast was clear they had to run for their lives to Egypt. Just a small element of what he and his family had to endure in order to fulfil his mission to save us all. How can this issue not concern us? Not a gospel issue, perhaps? Not something we should get involved in, perhaps? Too many other things we should be getting on with at Christmas, perhaps? I suspect our answers would be very different if we were refugees or IDPs ourselves. It is a quirk of providence that we are not.
Here are some other summaries of the situation (taken from the International Medical Corps website):
If you start asking the question, “What can we do about this?” then this at least a start, and this post has been worth the time taken to write it.