As I write this column, two events are occurring: The Danish Parliament has just passed a law requiring all refugees arriving there to hand over money and valuables above a certain low financial threshold. At the same time, I am flying from Rome to Boston with no more hassle than to show my passport and declare I’m not bringing back more than $800 of goods.
But there are two huge differences between these events: I am flying home from a foreign country at a time and on conditions entirely of my own choice. The refugees arriving in Denmark — or any other country for that matter — are fleeing for their safety or even their lives.
I cannot but imagine what it would mean to be forced to leave my home on a moment’s notice and go, perhaps on foot, to another country hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. What of all that is precious would I grab to carry? How much would be left behind, and to what fate? How would I care for my loved ones and for myself? Where would we go? Whom could we trust, and at what cost?
As I ask these questions, the flight attendant passes by and asks if I would like more coffee. But what of those traveling through a European winter with only the clothes they are wearing? How much more to them would a hot drink mean than to me?
As with news stories of some duration, viewers soon become inured to a reality that initially might have struck them as tragic. The coverage goes on and on and we become accustomed to it, each time having a little less empathy for the horrifying suffering of these people.
With fresh insight a passage from Genesis comes to mind: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” (Gen 12:1).
How disruptive and heartbreaking it must have been for Abram and his family to pack up their belongings, bid farewell to kin, and set out from the land of their ancestors. At least they had divine guidance.
But what of those on the refugee trail today? How do we, in the land in which they arrive, treat them? Do we comfort and aid them as we would hope to be comforted and aided?
Yes, these new arrivals are different, with different languages, different dress, different customs and different needs. But ultimately they are as we would be in such circumstances: tired, unsure, frightened, worried and fearful.
Here in New Hampshire, the “wave of refugees” is hardly a bump on the water’s surface. Surely our very human sense of empathy — literally “the sense of feeling with” — will bring out our best. After all, back far enough, our forbearers were strangers too in a strange land. Now it’s our turn.