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Humanitarian Protection in Black, Brown, and White

My family and I spent four years as missionaries in Italy, where we met hundreds of people from various countries in Africa and the Middle East who arrived in Europe seeking humanitarian protection. 

B fled her home in Northern Nigeria at the age of 14 after Boko Haram attacked her village, killing her grandmother (who was also her only living caregiver) and attempting to kidnap her. She spent two years on a harrowing journey to find refuge, including several months of detention and exploitation by armed militias in Libya before being loaded onto an overcrowded, dilapidated old fishing boat set adrift in the Mediterranean Sea. I met her a couple weeks after she arrived in Italy, and our conversation is one I’ll never forget.

We had engaged in a few small, more surface-level conversations about her life and how she arrived in Italy. But that day was different. That day she opened up and shared a part of what was on her heart. And it was devastating. So much pain. So much trauma. So much loss. So much anxiety about whether or not Italy would give her humanitarian protection (they would–at least until age 18–because she arrived as an unaccompanied minor). What would happen after she turned 18? Would they send her back to Libya? Send her back to Nigeria? The fear in her words was palpable; the terror in her eyes pierced my soul. At the end of the conversation, she looked at me and said, “I know there are good people in this world. Why don’t they care about me? Why don’t they care about what’s happening in my country?

I know there are good people in this world. Why don’t they care about me?

Yes, B’s words will stay with me forever. And while it was the first time I heard them said to me by a Black or Brown person seeking humanitarian protection, it wasn’t the last. 

In 2015 I ran across this article that talks about the humanitarian caste system, a term that has become a fundamental part of my work as the refugee ministries coordinator for RCA Global Mission. Why? Because it gave me the vernacular to identify (and begin confronting) one of the most egregious phenomena I’ve witnessed for the past eight years in this ministry context–that even when people are fleeing for their lives, we make judgements and decisions about who “deserves” assistance and protection, and who doesn’t. 

Why are we more ready and willing to give refuge and legal protection to some people over others? To give humanitarian assistance? To listen to stories of pain and suffering, and to respond with empathy and compassion for some, while responding with apathy and disdain for others? To open borders with a warm welcome to some, and to greet others by closing borders off with fences, barbed wire, and violent pushbacks?  

I get it–there are many reasons why we make these judgements and decisions, and many factors that are at play. 

Some that I’ve recognized over the past decade include:
  • Nationality
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Culture (perceived cultural differences)
  • Religion
  • Economic class
  • Education/Professional level
  • Gender/Sex
  • Age 
  • Language (i.e. are they fluent in our language?)
  • Geographic location (perceived proximity to us)
  • Media coverage (or lack of coverage) of the humanitarian crisis and the people affected
  • Our understanding (or lack of understanding) of the circumstances precipitating the threat to life/humanitarian need
  • Whether or not we’ve had a recognizable military presence in that country/region
  • How much we value the country/region being affected by humanitarian crises
  • Short term crisis vs. long term, protracted crisis
  • New crises feeling more urgent than older crises 

Of course there are many more, but you get the picture. Our determination of who deserves humanitarian assistance and protection is complex. Yet, we know that racism and xenophobia are sins with deep roots in our world–including in the United States and Canada–and they bear the fruit of injustice for Black and Brown people seeking refuge and who are in need of humanitarian protection. 

Yet we serve a God who loves every tribe and every nation; a God who calls us, as Christians, to be a people who join in the work of justice, peace building, reconciliation, compassionate care for the vulnerable, and bringing about the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. 

So, as we continue to watch the situation in Ukraine unfold, please pray for the people affected by this tragedy, and support efforts to provide them with humanitarian assistance and protection. Please make sure that you include Black and Brown people whose lives and liberties are at great risk in Ukraine as well (including immigrants, international students, refugees, and the Roma people living in Ukraine).

But also spend some time listening to the cries of the people of Ethiopia, Yemen, Haiti, Myanmar, Cameroon, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Mauritania, The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and so many other Black and Brown people forcibly displaced from their homes who are asking, “I know there are good people in this world. Why don’t they care about me? Why don’t they care about what’s happening in my country?” Let’s put the love of Christ into action for their protection, as well.

Maybe this feels like too much to you. It’s a lot of pain and suffering mentioned in a brief blog post. Therefore, I encourage you to choose one of the countries mentioned above and learn about what is happening in that country that is contributing to the need for humanitarian protection for the people of that country.  Pray for that country and its people. Learn about how the United States and Canada are (or are not) providing humanitarian assistance and/or protection for its citizens. 

A few advocacy opportunities to consider include:

 In the United States
In Canada

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

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