Equality brings restoration for refugees

November 7, 2017

I admire the very important work of the Helen Bamber Foundation in supporting asylum seekers and refugees who have survived extreme trauma and human cruelty. The Foundation’s compassionate and holistic approach to healing emotional wounds and integrating people into the wider community is particularly inspiring.

Recently, the Pureland Foundation was honoured and humbled to sponsor an annual “Conversation”, a Helen Bamber Foundation event hosted by Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, and attended by 900 people in Westminster. This year’s theme of Creative Survival was communicated through deep conversation, storytelling, performance and laughter.

Instead of viewing the refugees who come to it as “victims”, the clients of HBF are respected as “survivors”, under the guiding Foundation principle of equality. One guest speaker recounted a first meeting with the late Helen Bamber herself. After welcoming the new arrival for the first time, Helen sat looking into the eyes of the client. Both people simply sat in silence, reading each other for a long while. Helen acknowledged her clients as equals, without judgment. Their trauma had generally put them in fear and despair, but Helen’s compassion and neutrality helped them to feel safe.

Emma Thompson, president of HBF, said at the event that it is when we, as hosts, start to treat our guests with equality and respect that true recovery becomes possible.

The kindness of strangers

In Ancient Greece, a host was expected to make sure the needs of his guests were met. One’s ability to abide by the laws of hospitality determined nobility and social standing. The Stoics regarded hospitality as a duty inspired by the god Zeus himself.

The principle of Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God” drives hospitality in India and Nepal. Ancient stories suggest that guests may be revealed to be gods who will reward a gracious host. And among Pashtun people in particular, it has always been traditional to show profound respect to all visitors (regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status) without any hope of remuneration or favour, a practice called melmastia.

Stephen Fry lamented that the deep-rooted human tradition of hospitality, particularly to those we don’t know, seems sadly often to have been lost in recent times. Fry said: “It ought to be deep within us that the stranger has a special place and gets served [at our table] first.”

Integration is not easy for hosts and guests alike; it requires compassion and acceptance on both sides. And it must start with the kindness of strangers.

From listening comes understanding

Considering the cultural differences, the strains on public services and even the recent incidents of terrorism, it is inevitable that many view refugees with resistance and prejudice, and that is frequently fed by pre-conceived ideas of immigrants hungry for the benefits of our welfare state.

However this view of “benefit tourists” rarely stacks up. According to German charity Caritas, many refugees fleeing Syria leave all their possessions behind, except for their house keys. This is a symbolic act, signifying the intention to return. Naomi Shihab Nye, the US novelist, expresses this very clearly, saying: “You know, those of us who leave our homes in the morning and expect to find them there when we go back – it’s hard for us to understand what the experience of a refugee might be like.”

Once one listens, one understands quickly how difficult it must be to leave home and family to pursue an uncertain future in a foreign land. Most refugees don’t risk their lives and everything else to pursue the generous benefits systems provided by the West, they arrive here for their safety.

Consider the one million Irish who emigrated to the US during the Potato Famine of the 19th Century – fleeing starvation, leaving behind their loved ones and possessions to brave a dangerous voyage across an ocean. And upon arrival at Ellis Island, experiencing the unspeakable joy of the Statue of Liberty’s welcome:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Nearly 40 million Americans claim some Irish ancestry today, including some of the greatest contributors to life and society their country has known.

We bear Karmic responsibility

The bravery of refugees teaches us crucial lessons about humanity and compassion and, very importantly, about Karma, the law of cause and effect.

I was brought up a Buddhist and once a year, I attend an important Buddhist service of Repentance, which acknowledges the Karma that we, our families, forebears and our societies have created for our sakes in this lifetime and throughout history.

From a high vantage point, we come to realise that all the conflicts, chaos and wars in this world, regardless of their causes and justifications, have created a complex Karmic web.

We are all interconnected directly and indirectly. The refugee crisis has opened my eyes: it is a manifestation of Karma that is so real and so close to home.

Resistance is often our natural response to anything we find challenging and uncomfortable. We watch TV in horror at the tragedies unfolding in other countries, and we often tune out by changing channels. But in my opinion, only acceptance and forgiveness can transform the Karma to make positive change. By promoting respect and equality between refugees and their hosts, we can begin to redress the imbalance and foster inclusion and integration.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation