For the past four weeks, I have been on annual leave during which I have been instructing a student, Julie, an artist who teaches in a Catholic school in Indianapolis, who is learning to paint icons in my studio in Douglas. She has been learning to paint icons by drawing and painting four essential icons: The Holy Face; Christ the Savior; the Eleousa (Merciful) Mother of God and the Annunciation. As should always be the case with icon painting, there has been a fair amount of time built into the daily schedule for prayer and reflection as well as for instruction, drawing and painting.
Because the icon is meant to be not only a work at the service of the prayer of those who gaze on it, but the fruit of prayer, these weeks have had something of the character of a time of retreat and recollection. Two of the icons have a particular prayer intention: in my case, for a grieving couple who lost their daughter last July. In my student Julie’s case, for the healing of a young woman who has been diagnosed with a rare but aggressive form of cancer.
But my overall prayer intention during these days has been for refugees in general (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] estimates that there are currently 65.3 million refugees worldwide) and for Syrian refugees in particular (the UNHCR estimates that since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than 12 million Syrians have been forced to flee to neighboring countries and to Europe or are internally displaced within that devastated country).
To remind myself to pray daily for these unfortunate and suffering people, I keep a small photo of a Syrian refugee family in my prayer corner, close to the Holy Face of Jesus and the Mother of God of Mercy. This photo (which I cut out of One magazine – the quarterly of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association cnewa.org) of this smiling mother and father, with their little son helped me to remember that the Syrian refugee crisis is a tragedy played out in the lives of millions of ordinary families just like theirs. And
since I pray better with a pencil or a brush in my hand, I’ve begun the drawing for an icon of Mary, Mother of Refugees.
Although during the past four weeks I’ve done my best to keep the distraction of the daily news cycle out of my studio and out of my thoughts, the Supreme Court’s decision last week to take up the constitutionality of the Administration’s 90-day travel ban and to allow some parts of the ban to go into effect pending their future decision, did not escape my notice, because it appears to effectively bar the admission of any more Syrian refugees to our country.
The reason given is the concern that hidden among those refugees seeking asylum could be terrorist operatives seeking a way to enter the United States and attack us. Notwithstanding that less than 10,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted into our country to date and that those who have been admitted have been subject to up to two years of vetting prior to being granted asylum. This policy fails to take into account that these are people who fled their country to escape terrorism, conflict and violence and a civil war that after six years and an estimated halfmillion dead, continues to rage.
The obvious and optimum solution, of course, is for the Syrian civil war to end. This is not simply wishful thinking. At the end of the first Afghan war after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1987, a majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan returned home. But even if the war ends, there will still be Syrian refugees who will not be able to safely return home.
When I think of Syrian refugees, I am reminded of the familiar parable Jesus told of the man traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem who was set upon by robbers. Stripped, beaten and left for dead, he lay on the side of the road. A priest and then a Levite saw the poor man in need of help, but they chose to cross to the other side of the road and continued on their way. No doubt, it was risky helping the wounded man on the side of the road could have made them vulnerable to being attacked by the robbers, waiting to ambush anyone offering help. They weren’t bad people, but they were overcome by their fear. A third traveler, a Samaritan, equally vulnerable, overcame his fear enough to stop, bind up the man’s wounds, put him on his animal and take him to an inn where he could recover.
Syrian refugees, by tens of hundreds of thousands, like that man on the road to Jerusalem, are beaten and battered and in need of help. Most of the refugees are women and children, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and worse at the hands of heartless and unscrupulous people they encounter along the way. Having fled from the conflict with whatever they could carry with them, they’ve been stripped of everything except the hope that kind, compassionate strangers might help them find asylum, safety and welcome.
In Caritas Internationalis, the international relief and development arm of the universal Church, and the US branch of Caritas, Catholic Relief Services, the refugees have truly encountered compassionate strangers who have worked tirelessly since the beginning of the catastrophic war in Syria, to provide every kind of support and aid to the refugees in the countries bordering Syria and in Europe.
This has only been possible through the generosity of the Catholic faithful in this country and around the world. Thank you!
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan after he had been asked, “Who is my neighbor?” At the end of the parable, he asked a question of his own: “Who was neighbor to the man who had fallen among robbers?” And his questioner replied, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
As a nation, I pray that we may be true neighbors to Syrian refugees by treating them with mercy and compassion.
As a nation, we can and must do more for Syrian refugees.