For us Christians, we believe in Resurrection. Resurrection is coming back to life after being dead. Jesus died on the cross and was laid on the tomb, but after three days he resurrected! Because of that victory of Jesus over death, us Christians are filled with hope that there is no such a thing as a dead end situation. Thank you God, there is Resurrection! Therefore there is hope in every hopeless situation. But then, I must admit, there were times that I asked God: “How about for those asylum seekers seeking refuge in UK? Can I see hope for them?”
Several months, prior to the end of my first three year-term in 2013, I remember myself starting to discern whether I would come back to Britain as a lay missionary to renew for another term. As I discerned, I said to God, “You know God, this help that you are asking from me seems endless… the number of asylum seekers (seeking refuge in UK) is not decreasing, and in fact they are continually increasing as war and conflict increase in different parts of the world”.
Aside from the news evidence, I myself could attest that indeed the statistics were increasing because I was in charge at that time of the statistics of asylum seekers availing of the services in one of my ministries. Many are not new, but in fact are waiting already for a long time to have “Leave to Remain” (legal status to stay in UK). Some have even been waiting for 10 years already. I recall them crying because of the difficulties and challenges of their situation. Though they know I am a Catholic lay missionary while they belong to another faith, still some of them say to me, “Sister, please pray for me I am having this problem…”
Of course, in the Bible, as Christians we are instructed to pray at all times for every concern (Philippians). But, it also reminds us that we should accompany our faith with action (James). And we should show hospitality to strangers, because by doing this without us knowing it, we might have entertained Angels (Hebrew). I do pray for them, but I still try to match my faith with actions no matter how small it might be in the eyes of others. Mother Teresa said that, “not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love”.
Many asylum seekers thought that after they successfully completed their life-threatening exodus from their county and reached the UK, they were already in the Promised Land. They soon realised it would just be the start of another form of struggle towards their freedom.
What are the challenges then of the lives of asylum seekers, and how can we respond? Actually, as I continually get involved in various charities and churches in Birmingham that are assisting them, I would say there are many challenges and my list is becoming longer.
Uprooted and Isolated
One time, one of them poured out her heart to me when I visited her. She cried a lot and told me of all the disappointment she was going through. It was winter, she could not go out that week to buy her food because she was sick, and then her solicitor informed her that her case was refused. Her mail notice card was not given to her on time and so the letter and the small parcel she was looking forward to receiving was returned back to her brother in their country. A maintenance person suddenly entered her unit saying he would fix something, though she hadn’t put in a request because there was nothing wrong in her unit, and so she felt her privacy was invaded.
On top of all this, her father also got sick. I tried to listen to her and cried with her at some point. Did I bring words of comfort? I do not know if what I said achieved this, and I do not know if what I did was even enough that day. Afterwards she smiled and said: “I feel better now; maybe I just needed someone who would listen to me; maybe, just like the heavy clouds pour down their rain, after that there is sunshine again. Why am I telling this to you? Maybe because you are in a better position to speak about these things to others than me.”
We do not know what a simple short visit can do to boost spirits on a particular day. It could be as simple as that. Many asylum are asked for a character reference letter, and I have written these for those whom I know personally. I write about how good they are as people, based on my experience, emphasising the good characteristics that I have observed from them, hoping that the reader will realise that, if only they are given the chance, they could be an asset to the society and not a burden as many perceive them.
As Pope Francis has said, we should be willing to lend our voices to marginalised people in our society, especially those who are afraid and cannot speak for themselves. Many fear that if they do speak out, it might result in detention and speed up their deportation. So, if we have the chance to speak to other people about their struggle and to shed light on their issues, and neutralise the bad media publicity against them, we can take it. If there is an opportunity for an interview, to be willing to speak about the issue. If there are campaigns – rallies, demonstrations, petitions, we can be there or at least give them support. If there is an opportunity to write an article about them, we can do so too. I am not a journalist nor an expert speaker or writer either, but I do so when I have the opportunity.
When I recently attended the demonstration and signature campaign called ‘Dignity not Destitution’ at the City Centre, I had the chance to speak to several people. Some generously gave their signatures, but some had negative responses and asked me if I was an asylum seeker myself. I told them I was not, but I believe that they are here because they are fleeing for their lives, they do not have a choice, just like the Holy Family who fled to Egypt because of the persecution of Herod who wanted to kill baby Jesus. I also tried to answer some of their questions. Some still did not give their signatures but remain standing there until the demonstration was over. I suppose they stayed because they were thinking about what they are seeing and hearing. I know such initiatives are not wasted. It is the Holy Spirit then who will remind them and continually work in their hearts.
Many charity organizations are usually short of volunteers. Work ranges from simple tasks like sorting clothes and serving coffee or tea, to a more challenging one like teaching in English classes. As far as I can remember, based on my experience, one can acquire the skills needed for whatever task is at hand as you continually immerse yourself in the work. And that includes teaching in English classes, which I never thought or dreamed I could do. It is true indeed, God’s grace is sufficient for the task at hand.
Actually, these responses are just some examples based on my own involvement and experiences and I am sure others could still find many other creative ways to alleviate the struggles of our brothers and sisters seeking asylum.
Witnessing Resurrection in their lives
A few weeks before I went back to the Philippines after my first term in 2013, some asylum seeker friends contacted me and my fellow lay missionaries, asking us to visit them in their new house to celebrate with them for they already received their papers. What a big surprise! As we visited them, we could see that they were now starting a new life. One of them even said that all the pains and sufferings were gone and wiped out.
Upon my return to Britain, after I decided to renew for another term as lay missionary, I met one of them on the road. He was already working as a salesman in one of the shops at the City Centre. I met another one at a bus stop and he said he had already received his papers and was on the way to his training for a new job. On another occasion I met another one who also had her papers. I bumped into another while crossing the street one day and she also had her papers and was now working. I also met one of them on a bus, and she said she had her papers and was now happily married. Then there was the pregnant woman in detention whom her mother in law asked me to pray about, I met her later in my ministry, together with her baby. She was finally released!
The success stories though are just like a drop in a bucket out of the multitude who are still waiting. For me, as a Christian missionary who journeyed with them, it is like witnessing resurrection in the lives of our asylum seeker brothers and sisters. Their lives are now a living testimony that there is hope!
As my second term as a missionary is now approaching its end, I am now discerning whether I will renew for another term. I do not know if this is my last term either. In case it is so, I believe that even though what I was able to do is just a tiny share, and I might not be able to witness the end of this huge work, still that tiny share was been a part of that little drop of hope. Maybe if all of us will do our tiny share of what needs to be done, even only at a particular point of our life, that drop of hope will eventually become a flood of hope.