What does a world look like in which there are now 258 million migrants and refugees, representing 3.4% of the global population, or, one in every 300 people?
To gain some kind of mental image, let’s begin with the extraordinary new documentary film from Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, filmed in 23 countries and 40 refugee camps.
This film is sweeping, immersive, and artful at moments, drawing us in with its use of high-altitude drone cameras looking down at a beautiful cobalt Mediterranean, across which a boat overflowing with orange life preservers gradually pulls into harbor at the island of Lesbos. As the director Ai Weiwei helps the passengers unload, he speaks with a young man from Iraq, a country that now has 4 million displaced people, internally and externally. An Greek aid worker comments to the director that in a single recent week (during the period of the film’s shooting, 2015-2016), some 56,000 refugees arrived in Greece, with another 5,000 drowned en route.
The film moves on to Iraq, with another high-altitude shot, this one of a camp stretching out over the expanse of desert to the far-distant horizon. A crawl feed at the bottom of the screen reminds us that Iraq now hosts some 277,000 Syrian refugees.
We briefly meet two Syrian women who have lived in the camp for four years. They describe how the missiles were falling on their town “like rain,” hitting every house, when they decided to flee their country. Unquestionably, the primary motive for refugees in recent years has become simply basic physical safety.
Next we go to a camp in Bangladesh and a conversation with a Rohingya man in which he describes the persecution of his people, devout Muslims, in his home country of Myanmar. A campaign of ethnic cleansing there has displaced approximately 500,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh and elsewhere in the region. He tells us his people will not fight back, viewing violence as something devout Muslims cannot chose.
The camera moves on to come alongside refugees walking, endlessly walking across southern Europe in hopes of crossing enough borders to reach Germany, a major host country. The camera lingers with these exhausted people, sometimes hopeful, sometimes ill or despairing. One Syrian man holds up the 17 identity cards owned by his extended family—of whom only 12 remain. He begins to break down as he explains that the others drowned: he says he dreams about them every night.
We watch as families—children and elderly folk in tow—somehow ford streams of freezing, rushing water as they press on toward the next border. They encounter razor wire and tear gas. One woman comments on this endless walking and their growing sense of statelessness, “Nobody shows us the way.”
The director gives these short testimonies before the camera—they’re not really interviews—an additional impact by lingering on the faces of his subjects, allowing us remain in their presence just a few extra seconds. The effect is compelling and powerfully humanizing, like brief encounters you might have with someone suffering as you walk along a city street.
Moreover, many Americans may look at these scenes—especially those of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan—with a terrible kind of foreboding at finally seeing for the first time (in HD format) just what our military policies have wrought in this region over the last two decades in particular.
In several segments, the camera takes us down the streets of Iraqi and Syrian towns, now bombed out and blasted into hellish ruin, as though no trace of human use could be spared. One brief but nightmarish moment occurs when a cow wanders down the street of an empty and demolished Kurdish town, while just over the tops of the buildings we can see huge billowing black clouds of smoke and fire from the oilfields in flames close by.
Another brief segment, location not identified, apparently depicts a Syrian Orthodox Mass underway in a camp, with chanting and a kind of makeshift iconostasis behind the altar. To explain something about this group and what I think its situation represents for Western Christians and Catholics, I want to comment on a new book, The Last Christians, by Andreas Knapp, from Plough Publishing.
The author, a priest who works with refugees in Germany, travelled in 2015 to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to collect stories of survivors—and to seek answers to troubling questions about religion and violence.
Knapp found himself among Christians of the Syrian Orthodox Church, a Middle Eastern Christian group who still speak Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic which Jesus spoke and the everyday language of ancient Palestine. Knapp notes that when a refugee from this area speaks the words, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani!,” she is not simply quoting from the Bible in a foreign language but uttering a cri de coeur in her native Aramaic: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This group, some 70,000 of whom were living in or near Mosul before the rise of ISIS, are part of a church with ancient origins, going back to Paul’s baptism in Damascus and the tradition of St. Peter as the first bishop of Antioch. Nearby Erbil (Arbela) is known to have been a diocesan town since 104 AD. Monks from ancient Syria founded monasteries and hermitages as far west as Italy, a tradition upon which St. Benedict of Nursia drew in founding Western monasticism. Several 7th and 8th century popes in Rome were Syrians.
The refugees told Knapp stories of awakening to find their houses spray-painted with a scarlet letter nun—the letter N in Arabic--standing for “Nazarene”, as Christians are referred to in the Koran. Everyone knew what this meant. Muslim neighbors also knocked on their Christian friends’ doors urging them to flee the approaching ISIS militias. New meaning was given to the text, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23).
Altogether, the people of Iraq have suffered an estimated 12,000 attacks by jihadi terrorists in the last 20 years. At one of the twenty-two refugee camps in Ankawa just outside Erbil, Knapp met with religious sisters of Little Sisters of Jesus, a community founded (like his own Little Brothers of Jesus) by Charles de Foucauld. Sister Salama describes for him their flight from Mosul, with its city hall in flames. In the early morning, on foot, the sisters joined a huge column of refugees, Muslims and Christians alike, crossing the Tigris bridge heading toward Kurdistan. Truck beds were overflowing with suitcases and people, elderly folk huddled among sleeping babies and screaming children. Miraculously, after reaching an ISIS checkpoint at one moment, no one was stopped.
“For us, it was exodus and apocalypse, all in one,” Sister Salama comments. “Not only were we leaving our home—we were witnessing the end of the Iraq Christian world as we knew it.”
Knapp is also struck by a particular charism of these Middle Eastern Christians: “Has anyone even noticed that, despite the numerous brutal murders of Christian priests in Iraq or Syria, no imam has ever been shot, beheaded or crucified in the name of Christianity? Or that no Christians have ever blown themselves up in a mosque in retaliation for the many attacks on Christian churches?”
His answer is that non-violence doesn’t make the news. There is no notion of Christian jihad among these faithful.
In terms of non-violence and pacifism, Knapp concludes, the churches of the Middle East have simply remained truer to the Gospel than those of the West or the East.
Knapp also argues for a renewed ecumenism that overcomes the West’s indifference to the fate of Middle Eastern Christians, very much like the ecclesial solidarity urged by Catholic scholar Michael Budde in The Borders of Baptism. The latter allegiance to first “being a Christian”, Budde argues, would make us “members of a community broader than the largest nation-state; more pluralistic than any culture in the world; more deeply rooted in the lives of the poor and marginalized than any revolutionary movement; and more capable of exemplifying the notion of e pluribus unum than any empire, past, present or future.”
Thus, in the poverty of these refugees is a healing wisdom from which we have much to learn, as Pope Francis frequently points out. But to acquire it we must put away our fears in order to embrace a theology of the encounter, the authentic human liberation.
Editorial Note: This month Church Life Journal will tackle healing within the Church. The Church is a hospital for sinners. Even if recent media coverage of Catholicism has rightly converged upon the diseases within our communities, it all too frequently overlooks the healing that is simultaneously going on. A hospital is not just a collection of sick individuals, but also the community of doctors and staff around them devoted to helping the sick return to health. Therefore, throughout February Church Life Journal will concentrate upon healing within the Tradition (Bible, liturgy, popular piety, devotions, after scandals, within the home church, and miraculous cures). Please click on the following link to follow us in our exploration of the healing imagination.
Featured Image: taken from the Human Flow Official Movie Website press kit, Fair Use.