As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
My first-ever visit to a jail-like setting took place during an October 2015 trip to Thailand, where I met with Christian Pakistani refugees.
There, at an immigration detention center in Bangkok, I met Arbab. At the time, he was 21, with soft brown eyes and an innocent smile. His dark, curly bangs and beard covered his face because he couldn’t cut them while in detention. He’d been stuck in a cell for more than six months, with no contact with his family and no money to pay bail.
We spoke behind two separate chain-link fences, standing about 4 feet apart, and we both gripped the metal wires as he told me his story. He said his father was a lawyer who defended Christians against Muslims back in Pakistan. When the family started receiving death threats from Islamic groups, Arbab and his family grabbed their bags and fled to Thailand, where they hoped to appeal to the United Nations for refugee status.
The problem was, they entered Thailand on a tourist visa and then stayed beyond the expiration date—which meant the Thai government now considered them undocumented immigrants. Because Thailand never ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, Arbab’s family had no legal protection or rights in Thailand.
I heard many stories like Arbab’s while in Thailand: Thai police broke apartment doors, roused dozens of Pakistani refugees from sleep, and trucked them to the immigration detention center. Pakistanis are easy to spot with their darker complexions and deep-set eyes, so few dared venture out of their houses for fear of being arrested and detained. Arbab got caught while trying to find a job—and now he occupied a cell so packed that he could barely find space to sit or lie down, with such inadequate meals that he’d lost weight. I heard similar reports of detainees taking turns to sleep back-to-back; of air so humid and suffocating that cellmates stripped down to their underwear; and of malnutrition, poor medical care, and deaths.
These stories horrified me. The horror became even more real when I met these refugees, looked into their eyes, drank their milky tea, and sat next to them as they cried tears of fear and hope. I remember thinking, “I’ll bet the United States wouldn’t deal with these people so unjustly.” At that time, the country I knew and loved was a place that welcomes the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free—and I knew these families would be a beautiful blessing to any country that would receive them.
I wrote about their desperate plights for WORLD, attracting many reader responses filled with outrage and compassion. Some even asked if they could sponsor these families. While Thai officials saw these refugees as lawbreakers, our readers saw them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
That is why, during one of the worst global refugee crises in history, it’s been upsetting to see similar things happening in my own country: Inhumane conditions in detention centers, the stripping of our asylum system, a record cut to refugee resettlement numbers, family separations, sending asylum-seekers back to dangerous border cities in Mexico … If you want a larger understanding of our current border policies, I created a timeline of some of the major policy changes that have taken place in the last two years.
But even more disappointing are some of the voices within my own evangelical circles. Some people seem to view immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers with suspicion and fear rather than justice and compassion. I say all this not as a journalist, but as a fellow Christian and an immigrant who loves my adoptive country. I say it not as someone who champions open borders, but as someone who values security, law, and order yet also seeks humane treatment toward those who seek refuge from us.
In my six years of reporting for WORLD, I have never received so many negative, impassioned emails and comments as I have over the topic of immigration and the border. Here are some main objections: Many readers are upset because they sense criticism against the Trump administration, criticism that to them smells a lot like the liberal mainstream media freaking out over everything involving President Trump. Some asked why I don’t mention migrants who commit terrible crimes, but that’s not the same as asylum-seekers. Some point fingers at “liberal lawyers” coaching asylum-seekers to create fraudulent claims (yes, lawyers “coach” their clients—they help them understand the law and look for legal ways to make their case). Many state that most of these “so-called asylum-seekers” released into the United States just disappear (statistics state the opposite) or take advantage of government benefits (asylum-seekers cannot receive federal benefits until they receive asylum—and even so, only for a limited time). Some have asked why people don’t just apply for asylum at the U.S. embassies in their own countries (because the United States doesn’t accept asylum applications that way).
There are a lot of misunderstandings regarding immigration (a very complicated system) and the current border crisis (another complicated, multilayered phenomenon). Some of those misunderstandings are due to the time and effort necessary to read up on the history, geopolitical events, and laws that make up the border issue. It doesn’t help that border policies and laws are changing seemingly every week. Honestly, I’m still barely keeping up and am trying to educate myself—and this is literally my job.
That said, these objections reflect a stance similar to that of Thai officials cracking down on Christian Pakistani refugees: “They broke the law. We can’t handle the amount of their needs. We can’t be sure to trust them. We need to secure our border and protect our citizens.” And absolutely—these are all valid reasons. But surely we can still find room for humane treatment, recognize the tough choices people feel forced to make, and listen to their stories not just through the judgment of law, but with grace and empathy for fellow image-bearers of God.
What’s more, our laws are not always God’s law. Our laws change all the time, reflecting the latest stance of our culture and government. I’m sure many people who support our government’s zero-tolerance immigration policies today also balk at implementing something like the Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow laws. Call me naïve: I think a just and law-enforcing yet compassionate approach is possible. The National Immigration Forum lists some good strategies.
I don’t believe that people who support the Trump administration’s border policies are cruel, unsympathetic folks. And I don’t want to suggest that all the responses I’ve gotten from readers have been critical—some have been refreshing and encouraging. I appreciate people who ask for more resources because they’re still not sure what to believe, because at least it demonstrates a willingness to seek and measure truth.
So here’s my plea: It’s OK that we Christians disagree on certain policies regarding immigration. But precisely because immigration policies are not something that the gospel is all that clear about, we should keep an open mind and not just rely on our favorite news source to form staunch opinions. The truth is usually a lot more complex than quick news bites and tweets.
For those who want deeper understanding, here are some good resources:
• This article and this one explain the basics of our immigration system and why it’s not so easy to “just get in line.”
• Welcoming the Stranger by World Relief’s Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang is a good beginner’s guide to help Christians look Biblically at immigration.
• World Relief has a helpful two-part series answering prevalent border crisis questions, including questions about the asylum process.
• The Evangelical Immigration Table is a good go-to place to learn, pray, and speak out as a church community.
• For those of you who prefer to listen rather than read, I’ve really enjoyed the This Week in Immigration podcast by the Bipartisan Policy Center—you’ll find the commentators balanced, knowledgeable, and apolitical.
Share this article with friends.
Lately I’ve found myself receiving numerous cries for comfort from my friends. They are cries of anxiety, grief, depression, loneliness, and suffering. As I struggle to respond to them, I am reminded once again that nothing is harder—and yet nothing is easier—than caring for someone in pain.
Many years ago, I received such a cry from a friend who sent me a long email saying he was still struggling with eating-disordered thoughts. He and I had first bonded over our common history of eating disorders, and at the time of his email a year later, I was high with the daily victories of recovery, flushed with a rush of can-do attitude. So after reading his email, I sent him a longer email with what I thought was an empathetic message, adding a healthy dose of Scriptures and advice. I felt good about what I had written, optimistic that my words would uplift him and maybe even spark some much-needed motivation to drag himself out of his rut.
Instead, my friend responded with an email that jolted me: “Sophia, thanks for your advice, but I don’t need a sermon from you right now. I don’t want a preacher. What I need is a friend. I thought you of all people would understand what I’m dealing with right now.”
As I thought over and over about his email, I realized I had read his signals all wrong: I had assumed he wanted me to make his negative feelings go away, to help “fix” his issues. But that wasn’t actually what I was capable of giving. What he needed—and what I could give—was for me to simply listen, to be with him in his pain, and to share his burdens. Instead, I was giving him what I wanted for him—and frankly, my motivation was selfish and arrogant: I wanted him to feel better so that I also felt better. I also wanted credit for making him feel better.
Over the years, I’ve tried to remember that incident every time someone comes to me for comfort. I’ve not always done well. I’m a preacher’s daughter after all. There is a time for advice, and there is a time to shut up and listen. It’s a challenge to discern when those times are right, and I’ve sometimes spoken too strongly without fully trying to listen. At other times, I’ve made the opposite mistake, passively listening when I should have spoken words of gentle yet honest admonishment.
If anything, being a journalist has helped me in this area. As a journalist, when I’m interviewing someone about his or her story of suffering, my first response is awe and appreciation that someone would willingly share something so personal with me. So the first thing I do is thank the person for opening up. Then I listen: I make eye contact and respond with nods or noises to show that I’m actively engaged. I try to limit my facial expressions. I ask curious and open-ended questions aimed at better understanding the person, questions that reassure the interviewee I’m genuinely interested in him. I try to avoid making presumptions—much easier to accomplish with an interviewee, since I typically hold no preconceived image of him, than with a longtime friend or family member. And when someone bursts out crying, I sit in silence.
There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain.
There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain. I know because a while ago, something happened to me, and I called a friend. I was alone in my apartment and just needed to feel the presence of something other than my anguish, fears, and tears. The moment my friend heard my voice over the phone, she said, “Uh-oh. Seems like you need someone to be there with you right now. Hold tight, I’ll be right there.”
This friend lived 9 miles away and didn’t have a car. But she immediately called an Uber and spent about $25 each way to get to me. Then she sat beside me, put an arm around me, and listened. Sometimes we didn’t say anything, but sat in silence as I wept, and she even wept with me. And though she didn’t fix any of my problems, she did the best thing she could have done at the time: She was with me. It told me I was not alone, that I was loved, that I could fall and someone would catch me.
I try to practice the grace, humility, and lovingkindness my friend demonstrated that day. It’s not easy, because I have to fight my natural inclinations toward impatience and selfishness and pride. But it’s also easy, because the burden isn’t on me to fix things—often impossible for anyone other than God—but to simply listen.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” That encourages me, because it reminds me that the practice of caring for others begins in God. Since this is the sort of fellowship God desires, both with Him and with others, wouldn’t the God whose Spirit dwells in me gladly help me in this process of learning to practice fellowship well?
Share this article with friends.
On Sept. 1, I landed at Hong Kong International Airport after a 15-hour flight, looking forward to a hot shower and a dim sum dinner. Instead, I got stuck there for six hours.
For several months, pro-democracy protesters have been rallying against the government. What started out as peaceful protests quickly escalated into violent confrontations with the police. These protesters have targeted the Hong Kong International Airport and several mass transit stations, at one point causing hundreds of canceled flights.
The Sunday I chose to fly to Hong Kong, they targeted the airport again. Hundreds of protesters gathered at the airport bus terminal that afternoon, chanting “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” Soon after, officials suspended certain train and bus services connected to the airport, and police piled into the area.
By the time my flight arrived at the airport at 6 p.m., officials had stopped all traffic between the city and the airport. Riot police had marched in, and protesters had pushed everything they could find—from stolen railings to trolleys—to block police from the airport. Thousands of people were stranded. Some passengers desperate to catch their flight even dragged their luggage across the 10-mile bridge to the airport.
I asked a security official at the airport how I could get out of there, and the guy shrugged. “You can wait like the rest of them,” he said, pointing at the long lines of people queued to nowhere.
“Can I take taxi or Uber?” I said, and he shook his head: “No way out right now. You just wait.”
I tried to get something to eat at a 7-Eleven at the terminal, but the store was so crowded with people that elbows jabbed me in the ribs and suitcases ran over my feet several times. Finally, I heard a buzz sweeping through the crowd that the bus terminal had opened up, so I hurried over—along with hundreds of other people. Within seconds, dozens more people and their giant suitcases had thronged behind me. I was stuck like a grain of rice in a rice bag.
So there I was, smashed against sticky bodies and luggage in a sweltering humidity, hoping against hope that I would make it to my hotel soon. So many people were squashed together that nobody knew where the line started or ended, or even which line belonged to which bus service. From time to time, the heavens unleashed downpours of rain. Some people plucked out their umbrellas, almost poking eyeballs out, while the other poor unprepared folks stood soaking up the rain, unable to move more than an inch due to the crowds.
I was lucky enough to be standing under a roof, but I still felt miserable. I couldn’t move, my bladder was swelling, I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no place to sit. Everyone stood steaming in the communal fumes of body odor, frustration, and exhaustion.
Some dealt with the situation with humor. One elderly woman joked, “I should pretend to faint. The quickest way out of here is in an ambulance.”
Others reacted with anger. One man began screaming in Cantonese, waving his hands in the air as though he was slapping an invisible person.
Most were resigned. A couple leaned on each other and shut their eyes for a nap while standing up, some stared into space, and others watched dramas on their cell phones.