21 June – Refugee Week (Psalm 86, Genesis 21:8-21)

This Sunday marks the end of Refugee Week and when I was thinking of all the amazing connections CBC has with refugees (Glenn, Meryl & Kelli’s support of the men on Manus, Nagaraj being able to worship with us over Zoom, Doug Hynd’s role with Canberra Refugee Support and all the relationships with refugees over the years – wonderful to have Francisco and Dinora tell us their story this morning!) I also thought of you and the incredible role you had with World Vision in Europe at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Then I discovered that this story – the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar – was today’s lectionary reading, but it wasn’t till we were talking the other day that you reminded me of another connection – that you were also involved with the work of Hagar, that we support each year in our Christmas offering.

So, can you give us a quick rundown on you, Sarah; your time with Hagar (and why its called Hagar) and your work with World Vision until you started work with DFAT?

I’ve been very blessed to live in diverse, complex places over many years and undertake meaningful work with refugees, landmine survivors, and other vulnerable groups such as women and children who have suffered severe human rights abuses. My professional journey started with an Anthropology major and a short-term mission trip to Andhra Pradesh in India, which also involved visiting the largest slum in the world. My eyes were opened to the realities of extreme poverty and discrimination. On one hand, it was heartbreaking and yet on the other hand I felt compelled to act. Five years later, as a young married couple, Luke and I volunteered in Cambodia for a year. After that, we never looked back and were fortunate to find work opportunities with local and international NGOs.

I’ve always described my job at Hagar as the Country Leader for their Cambodia program as ‘the most rewarding job I’ve ever done, and the toughest one too’. For nearly five years, between 2009 and 2014, I was confronting the consequences of severe trauma and abuse, and the negative impact of discrimination.

The Hebrew name Hagar means “one who flees” or “one who seeks refuge.” In around 2000 BC, Hagar worked in a foreign land as a domestic servant for a rich man called Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Sarah was unable to bear children and, following a common practice of the time, Sarah offered her servant to Abraham. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarah grew jealous and threw her out of their home. An angel found Hagar alone in the desert. He promised a blessing on her child, naming him Ishmael, which means “God hears.” In response Hagar declared: “You are the One who sees me.” The story of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, is the story of millions of exploited, abused, and trafficked women and children. As an organisation, Hagar is committed to providing sanctuary and hope to women and children like Hagar and Ishmael, walking the whole journey with each one.

The next opportunity that arise for us was in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2014-17. This was a critical time in the Syria crisis when refugees were blocked from the Mediterranean route and were forced to literally walk the path through the Western Balkans to Central Europe. I met many refugee families who, prior to the war, lived very similar lives to ours. Many had lost loved ones or were separated from them. They had fled their homes and businesses. Many had experience traumas and tragedies on their journey to safety. One little boy, I recall, had travelled with his mother on a boat across the Mediterranean Sea and then spent two weeks walking through the lands of Macedonia and Serbia. After all that time, he was still wearing the lifejacket he had been given on the boat, and refused to take it off.

Some of you may have seen the Guardian article just a few days ago. It referred to 1% of humanity now being displaced, which is 1 in every 94 people.

People often feel uncomfortable about refugees – and uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable! Which is what happens in today’s Scripture too. Here are Abraham and Sarah, the great patriarch and matriarch of the Old Testament, the ones who we want to identify with in the story, acting in a way that is plain mean and plain cruel – casting out Hagar and Ismael (the child who until Isaac was born they claimed as their son!) To deal with this discomfort, some of the rabbinical commentaries speak of Ishmael ‘playing with Isaac’ as tormenting him, but the Hebrew word ‘playing’ is just a play on Isaac’s name; it simply refers to laughing.

In the text Sarah is clearly motivated by competition over resources, “Cast out this slave woman with her son (no longer my son);” she says, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” I imagine you have seen plenty of examples of fear of refugees and asylum seekers, and competition over resources, but I wonder if you’ve also seen examples of where people have been able to overcome those fears and become more generous – and seen benefits from this?

Yes, I have seen how fear, discrimination and false assumptions can play out including walls going up as countries push back refugees. I recall during my time in Bosnia the misconceptions about displaced people and the idea that they be wealthy migrant because they had access to a mobile phone. In reality, would any one of us leave home without our only form of communication with loved ones? The focus has at times shifted negatively towards legal definitions of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, rather than focusing on vulnerability and the complex nature of displacement.

Overcoming our fears, I believe, starts with acknowledging our own brokenness and trauma, and our own personal triggers that are set off when confronting poverty and displacement. It is important that we pause to put ourselves in the shoes of refugees and remember how much we have in common, and how privileged we are.

The bushfires this year, and COVID also have shown us that crisis can hit unexpectedly and impact people in different ways. The enforced lockdown and months of upheaval have taken their toll on all of us. But while we and our families have found it hard, the toll on refugees has been much worse, and our lockdown experience has perhaps only given us a glimpse of what it means to live in complete uncertainty. This is something we should keep in our minds not only during Refugee Week, but always.

The story of Hagar is so fitting. She declares to God ‘You are the one that sees me’. If only we could also really ‘see’ one another.

My current role focuses on the Syria Humanitarian Crisis, and we will be moving as a family to Amman, Jordan when travel restrictions are lifted. Jordan has a population comprising of a large percentage of refugees (43% in fact) including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the world’s largest Palestinian refugee cohort. The Government of Jordan with support from the International Community are making significant efforts to include refugee children in public schools and ensure refugee families can access employment as a host country. While these efforts can be improved, it is a positive example of inclusion and of valuing the skills, rights and contributions of refugees.

In the story Hagar runs out of water in the desert and in one of those Old Testament textual confusions, Ishmael is no longer a teenager as he was at the beginning, but a child that she carries on her shoulder until she can carry him no longer when she places him in the shade of a bush. And then there is this terrible, heart-breaking verse which has describes the plight of many desperate people. “Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look upon the death of the child.’” This unfinished painting by Jean Francois Millet depicts the agony of that scene. Hagar, turning away from her child, lifting up her voice and weeping.

With the Syrian refugee crisis, with the Rohingya, we saw many terrible scenes. It feels like these events are overwhelming – perhaps they simply are! Perhaps we can only join Hagar – sitting and weeping. But I would like to know what has sustained you in these situations, Sarah, what ‘wells of water’ you have found, in faith, in other supports, that have helped you to keep on responding and helping?

Honestly, I’m not always a good role model and at times I do feel overwhelmed and helpless. At times, I’m angry at the disparity and inequality I see in the world, and especially with apathy. There have been times when I can only sit in silence, or cry or just wait. Looking back, it seems that in every one of those low and troubling moments, someone has shown me kindness. Above all, my own tribe who walk this journey together, and my incredibly supportive hubby.

And I have seen the tremendous power of love, acceptance, and healing, especially during my time with Hagar. I’ve witnessed slowly but surely the smile returning on a child’s face and her ability to laugh again after many years of sadness due to trauma.

Sometimes, the hope has come from those we are seeking to serve. I recall working on a food distribution line in Northern Serbia with World Vision, and a young refugee introduced himself as a former employee who had fled Iraq just a few months prior. He stood with us for a few hours and handed out food, telling us stories about his journey and thanking us for the support we were providing.

Above all, I think the sustaining grace is that we are transformed ourselves through giving and caring. We are changed for better through serving, and through seeing vulnerability in ourselves. We are capable of fear and courage, generosity and selfishness, vulnerability and strength. Sometimes our vulnerability is our strength and our fear develops our courage.

And last but surely not least, I look back on my journey and can see God’s hand of protection again and again. As it says in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.”

And God’s hand is also present in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. As you mentioned earlier, Sarah, Ishmael’s name means “God hears” and in verse 17 there’s a delightful play on Ishmael’s name to make this point, “God heard the voice of the boy” or “God heard the boy named God hears”.

I find this an extraordinary story because here it is in the Jewish canon of Scripture portraying the great heroes of Jewish faith in a less than flattering light and indicating that God hears all who are in distress. Verse 20 concludes the story with the words, “God was with the boy.” As Jon Levenson, a Jewish scholar, puts it, “Ishmael is read out of the covenant but emphatically included in the promise that is larger than the covenant and preceded it.” All people are God’s people. God’s mercy, God’s hearing, God’s responding extends to all people.

As we know, Ishmael is claimed by Muslim people as the father of Islam. When I was looking at music for today, I came across a song written by Emma’s Revolution immediately after 9/11 as a reaction to the language of war and retribution that emerged as the dominant narrative… The songwriters said that they could not live with that narrative, that they needed to deliberately choose giving and caring and serving, as you said, Sarah, “the vulnerability that is our strength and the fear that develops our courage.” And so, they wrote this song the choir are going to sing for us, and we can join in, the words are simply the title, ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom.’