Refugees Living the Humility of Christ

By Tuesday, 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.

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.

Amanda Achtman

Amanda Achtman is an alumna of the 2017 Philos Leadership Institute. She studied political science at the University of Calgary in her home province of Alberta, Canada, and completed a master’s degree in John Paul II philosophical studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. Being raised in an interfaith Jewish-Christian family motivated her to defend freedom of conscience and religion, while encouraging serious and respectful engagement with theological differences. She is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Citizenship Medal and is grateful for every opportunity to contribute toward creating an ever more human culture. Follow her on twitter: @AmandaAchtman

  • Dianne Wood

    Thank you Amanda Achtman for this very thoughtful piece. It brought back great memories of my own experience with refugees when I was a child. My own Church sponsored many “boat people” from Vietnam and their families enriched our lives.
    Many teens of refugee families from Uganda came to my high school in the 1970’s. Their parents had been expelled from their country and had to take menial jobs in our town. My friends were old enough to watch and learn from the example their parents gave them as they resettled in a new country. They were very hard workers at school and won many of the top awards and did very well in university becoming doctors and lawyers and other top professions and all became very hard working members of our society and they raised strong families.
    I myself worked harder because of my refugee friends. They gave me such a good example and the friendly competition between us challenged me.
    I am praying for our refugee families today that they will revitalize our country and pass on an example of good virtues to all of us and help Canada become stronger, with good, strong families.

  • Igor Trześniewski

    The situation of these people is very similar to the immigrants from Poland after 1945 (Almost to the present). It is very difficult time/period for them. We should pray that they fill their lives in God and serve the family. Ability
    to break down after losing the perfect job (years of hard study), social
    position is very dangerous, especially if the citizens do not help them. For example, statistics show difference between divorces 30% of marriages in Poland to even 60% of Polish emigrants.

  • Jacqueline Chow

    Thank you so much Amanda for this beautiful reflection! I had never thought of comparing the situation of the refugees to Christ who as God lowered himself to become man. It is a good comparison, and inspires hope and admiration for the refugees. I love the quote of St. Josemaria. I look forward to your next reflection.

  • SincerelyAmanda

    Thank you for this perspective, Amanda! It is a precious understanding of dignity and Christ manifested in overlooked places.