Loving the immigrant: when will the foreigner find favour?

While I’ve done my best to ‘fit in’ since arriving here in Dublin some three years ago, any illusions that I am a ‘native’ Irishman disappear as soon as I open my mouth. The words that I say (and especially the way I say them!) make it clear that I’m from somewhere a bit further west than Sligo. In fact, my home town is about 6000 kilometres west of Sligo; it’s a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is that part of Canada which people fly over on their way to some place more glamorous, like Toronto or Vancouver.

While I’ve done my best to ‘fit in’ since arriving here in Dublin some three years ago, any illusions that I am a ‘native’ Irishman disappear as soon as I open my mouth. The words that I say (and especially the way I say them!) make it clear that I’m from somewhere a bit further west than Sligo. In fact, my home town is about 6000 kilometres west of Sligo; it’s a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is that part of Canada which people fly over on their way to some place more glamorous, like Toronto or Vancouver.

Of course, over the years, I’ve moved around a bit. In the mid- ‘nineties, I moved from Canada to Scotland and then five years later my Irish wife and I moved back to Canada, to a town called Moose Jaw (if you can believe it)! Four years later my wife and first daughter moved with me to Belfast and then about six years later another daughter joined us in moving to Chester, in England. Finally, a little over three years ago, we moved our three daughters to Dublin. I say ‘finally’ but given our track record, you might be forgiven for having your doubts. While not without various challenges, I think it is safe to say that our multiple experiences of migration have been largely positive, helped undoubtedly by the fact that each time, we chose to move, rather than having been forced to flee and that on all occasions we have landed in places for which either my wife or I already had a passport.

But, of course, not everyone’s experience of migration is so positive. Long gone are the news stories of immigrants contributing to economies, enhancing diversity, and enriching our society. Taking their place on our screens and in the pages of our papers are the ‘problems’ of immigration—not merely theoretical ones for politicians and policy- makers, but practical problems for real people. The problems for many immigrants in Europe and elsewhere are plain to see: many refugees, propelled from their homelands by war, famine and prejudice, discover that their exodus is fraught with danger. We know (and they discover, first-hand) that migration can be deadly. And if it doesn’t cost your life, it may cost your life-savings, as others seek to take advantage of your desperation. Or, if you’re very lucky, perhaps the only casualty will be your dignity, as you arrive in a new place to be perceived by the locals as a ‘problem’: taking their jobs, threatening their traditions and simply being ‘not from here.’ Whether the 1100 refugees due to arrive in Ireland from Greece between now and September will be viewed any differently by locals here remains to be seen.

While these problems are complex and Christians need to look in a variety of directions for answers, one crucial source of wisdom for a world thrown into turmoil by migration is the Scriptures, and especially that part of the Scriptures in which some of us spend less time: the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. In its pages we find a Hebrew word, ger, whose translation in the King James Version, ‘sojourner’, is no more helpful than ‘resident alien’ (NRSV), which conjures up images of people not from another country, but another planet! The fact that the ger is one who comes from elsewhere to live amongst people with whom they don’t have a blood or native connection, allows us to see that the pages of the Hebrew Bible are full of ‘immigrants’.

Abraham –an early migrant 

Indeed, the father of God’s people, Abraham, leaves Ur of the Chaldees (modern day Iraq) to settle in Canaan (modern day Israel / Palestine), but overshoots and settles in Egypt, only to return to settle again in Canaan. His grandson, Jacob, flees for his life (and a wife) to the land of his forefathers and then returns to Canaan, before his son, Joseph is forced to go to Egypt by his brothers, who then eventually join him there along with Jacob himself! And if these stories from Genesis were not sufficient to persuade us that ‘migration’ is deeply embedded in the DNA of God’s people as we meet them in the Hebrew Bible, we need only turn over the page to Exodus to encounter a people fully aware of their ‘immigrant’ status and the vulnerabilities which go with it.