News from ICN

I was a Stranger and You Made Me Welcome

March 16th, 2018Refugees, Columbans, Justice and Peace, Ellen Teague

Columban youth banner

By: Ahlaam Moledina

Ahlaam Moledina (16) has won the Columbans’ young journalists print competition on the theme, ‘Migrants are our Neighbours’. She is a pupil of Bishop Challoner Catholic College in Birmingham.

We are living in an age of mobility. To some degree, we always have – anthropological studies have shown that for at least 90% of our history, modern humans have lived as nomads. (The Independent, 2014.) In today’s West, we view a society that is quick to defend the value of mobility, with the resurgence of populist politics across Europe seemingly holding up the banner of the “little man”, and advocating for the promise of the capitalist dream for ordinary people. And yet, the same politics that attempts to endorse social movement is working overtime to keep people in place.

The Home Office has been criticised for its countless layers of bureaucracy and evaluation as part of the immigration process. In 2016, the UNHCR reported that there are 23.5 million refugees and asylum-seekers globally. By this point in 2018, these statistics have only increased.

The refugee crisis and the influx of migration into Europe is no longer the problem solely of politicians. It is, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband so pertinently put, a “crisis of humanity”. Today, an increasing number of ordinary people do more for the crisis than those in positions of influence. In the face of this humanitarian dilemma, we see the true reaches of human empathy, taught to us by religion, upbringing, everyday life. The 65.5 million displaced people around the world show us that we are not simply witnessing a breakdown of peace, but a breakdown of connectivity.

In July 2010, a mere few months before civil war broke out in the Arab Spring, my parents, five siblings and myself migrated to Birmingham, UK from the United Arab Emirates. As the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment grew, spurred on by right-wing groups such as Britain First and UKIP, we saw ourselves in the face of the fire. I was nine, my younger brothers seven and three, with limited academic ability in a country unlike any we had ever seen. Amidst the sense of antipathy that seemed to surround us, we took consolation in the kindness of our Catholic primary school. A fifteen-minute walk away from home in one of Birmingham’s most multiethnic areas, classes saw a balanced mix of Catholic, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu children, as well as children from other religious backgrounds (or none at all), put their hands together and recite the Hail Mary in perfect synchronisation. The Catholic ethos that permeated that very building, the teachings to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and the message to follow the example of the Good Samaritan imprinted onto every child that came through the green gates. In the whirlwind of political disillusionment and cultural isolation, and in the confusion of being young and uneducated and foreign, we were comforted by the repeated mantra of “migrants are our neighbours” that seeped out of every RE lesson.

Seven years and a Catholic secondary education later, I am now a passionate activist fighting for the rights of refugees and migrants in whatever way I can. Not least because I am a migrant, but because during a period where I believed my presence in this country to be invalid, I received every opportunity that my British-born peers were offered alongside me. After every class service and whole school Mass, Pope Francis’ words echo through my mind: “for us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveller is offered to Jesus Christ himself.”

I am not a Christian, but I was welcomed into the Church as though my headscarf strengthened our connections rather than weakened them. In 2016, as a member of my school’s Chaplaincy Team, I visited St. Chad’s Sanctuary, a centre that welcomes and hosts asylum-seekers and refugees during their respective journeys. An average of 150 people per week come to the centre to receive food, clothing and hygiene products, as well as Beginner English lessons to aid their transition into British society. In their effort to live as the Papal Message instructs them to, and to welcome strangers and comfort travellers, St Chad’s has become one of the most important places for migrants and asylum-seekers in Birmingham. It is a place of community and comfort. Volunteers at St Chad’s are now well acquainted with the Arabic word “inshallah” – meaning “if God wills.” In an increasingly divisive world where religion, language and even postcode causes strained relationships, St Chad’s Sanctuary remains an example of uniting in humanity, in compassion, and in God.

Britain is often viewed by the world as being the epitome of societal tolerance, but in a refugee crisis that bears a chilling resemblance to one which plagues our past, we must examine a history which shows the hidden truth behind the British response to the Holocaust. We see, as The Guardian states, that “current bigotry against asylum-seekers… closely mimics prewar anti-Jewish sentiments, and in both instances has been legitimised by British immigration policy.” The British government rejected ten times as many applications for asylum during the Second World War than they accepted.

Hebrews 13:2 tells us to “remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” We have been here before. We must not repeat our mistakes. We must not push away these angels seeking the aid they are wholly deserving of.

In this crisis of connectivity, we celebrate our differences and rejoice in our similarities. It is not one’s religion, race or nationality that makes them who they are, but the strength of their character and their benevolence for their fellow human. Whether granted by Church, Mosque, parent or life experience, we have a duty to use this intrinsic concern for good to ensure that we make strangers welcome, no matter who they may be.

See the full list of winners at:

See also: ICN 15 March 2016 – Former migrant and Muslim wins Columban Competition