Refugees Living the Humility of ChristTuesday, September 12, 2017
I recently visited with three generations of Syrian newcomers who live in my neighborhood. As we sat together in their living room, the middle-aged couple spoke to me about the destruction of their home in Damascus, the blessings and challenges of arriving as church-sponsored refugees to Canada 11 months ago, and the day-to-day struggles of being an immigrant family with aging parents and young children all sharing a small home in a new environment.
For months, we have all heard the media report on the obstacles immigrants face in finding work commensurate with their skills and experience because of linguistic and cultural barriers, and the non-recognition of their foreign credentials. Many of the baristas, servers and cashiers we encounter daily were formerly professors, doctors and engineers in their native countries.
The conventional question, “What do you do?” can be especially uncomfortable for refugees, because it reveals so little of who they are. They generally want to share about the work they formerly did in order to put into context how difficult it is for them to be doing what they are now.
The Christian conception of the dignity of work is grounded in an understanding of the dignity of the human person who carries it out.
As I looked into eyes of this couple, with their children playing cheerfully in a bedroom and the mother’s elderly parents sitting together with us, this is precisely what they recounted to me. They told me about the work they once did and then, with some embarrassment, about the work they do now.
One works at a coffee shop and the other works at a fast food restaurant. Despite their sense of shame and alienation from their former lives, as I spent time with this Christian family of Syrian refugees, it occurred to me that their situation is something like the Incarnation. God, who became man, humbled himself and, as we are told, “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Likewise, many refugees do not regard equality as permanent residents and eventually as citizens of their new countries as something to be exploited, but feel deeply responsible to work and to contribute.
Like Christ, many accept a humble position and modest salary, which is not in accordance with their talents, education or experience. While they may not have the opportunity to choose their ideal employment, and while this “humiliation” may seem like an utter necessity rather than an act of freedom, they – like all of us – may find in this the opportunity to reflect Christ in a new and unexpected way. It manifests greatness of soul to be able to adapt to such a different life, and this sacrifice is ultimately for the sake of their children and parents, and therefore out of love which ennobles.
As Saint Josemaría Escrivá insisted,
It is time for us Christians to shout from the rooftops that work is a gift from God and that it makes no sense to classify men differently, according to their occupation, as if some jobs were nobler than others. Work, all work, bears witness to the dignity of man, to his dominion over creation. It is an opportunity to develop one’s personality. It is a bond of union with others, the way to support one’s family, a means of aiding in the improvement of the society in which we live and in the progress of all humanity. […] Our Lord, perfect man in every way, chose a manual trade and carried it out attentively and lovingly for almost the entirety of the years he spent on this earth. He worked as a craftsman among the other people in his village. This human and divine activity of his shows us clearly that our ordinary activities are not an insignificant matter. Rather they are the very hinge on which our sanctity turns, and they offer us constant opportunities of meeting God, and of praising him and glorifying him through our intellectual or manual work.
The Christian conception of the dignity of work is grounded in an understanding of the dignity of the human person who carries it out. This personal dimension of the nature of work has primacy over the secondary factor of economic considerations.
We can hope and expect that refugees will also emerge from their “hiddenness,” like Jesus, into a more public ministry and we can support and encourage them that through their work, they can come to express the fullness of their personalities, virtues and expertise in service to their communities.