There have never been more refugees. How can we respond to the crisis?

BBC Wales, Weekend Word 19/06/2015

It’s a cold London evening in 1939, Liverpool St. Station; and hundreds of children are stumbling off a train. They’ve travelled for days from Berlin and Frankfurt, leaving behind parents that most will never see again. They’re Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution allowed into Britain under the kindertransport scheme. Now imagine a nine-year-old boy, shivering in the January air and clutching the suitcase that holds all his possessions. That’s my father.

I’ve often wondered how my father felt as he arrived in Britain – a foreign country where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language. How can we possibly imagine the bewilderment, vulnerability and sadness these children felt?

It’s a dramatic story and important for me. But something like my father’s experience is being repeated all round the world right now on a vast scale. This is Refugee Week, and the UN reported yesterday that almost sixty million people worldwide are currently displaced by war or persecution. That’s ten million more than in 2013. We hear a lot about refugees from Syria, Ukraine and Iraq, but millions have also fled from Afghanistan, Somalia, central Africa, Columbia, Burma and many other countries.

It’s a long list, and sometimes that’s all it is: a set of statistics and news images. Our discussions can focus on the problems this human torrent might bring to our own country and that’s understandable. But it can’t be the end of the story. What’s happening challenges our imagination and taxes our compassion.

As a Buddhist I want to overcome a selfish perspective, so I try to notice when I block out other people’s suffering or focus only on how their troubles might affect me. I notice how hard it is for me to really absorb the truth that he migrants clinging to leaky vessels in the Mediterranean, or adrift in the Indian Ocean, are enacting epic personal struggles; and the children huddling round open fires in stricken refugee camps are as real and as valuable as my own child.

Every refugee has a story like my father’s. He never ceased to be grateful that Britain had taken him in, and dedicated his working life to helping others. Refugees are fleeing violence and hatred; but I believe that everything good starts with kindness. And when we act with kindness a new story can begin.