Refugees face exploitation
Marjorie Dobson (1940 - )
© 2019 Stainer & Bell Ltd
Stainer & Bell Ltd, PO Box 110, 23 Gruneisen Road, London N3 1DZ
Used By Permission. CCL Licence No. 1372640
Tune: EBENEZER Public Domain
SCARLET RIBBONS Evelyn Danzig (1902-96) © Mills Music Ltd.,/EMI Harmonies Ltd./International Music Publications
Refugees face exploitation:
greed from gangs that seek for gain.
Sinking boats and stinking tent camps
cancel hope, prolong the pain.
Fleeing from despair and danger,
knowing that they have no choice,
all they ask is recognition,
welcome from a friendly voice.
Desperation seeks a solace
in a new untested place.
Will their searching end in conflict?
Will they find a resting place?
Or will hostile faces greet them,
cloaked in brief authority;
questions in an unknown language,
barring routes to set them free?
Many years ago a family
fled for safety with their son:
settled in a foreign country,
till the dangerous time had run.
Were those refugees accepted?
Were they met with hate-filled eyes,
as the hosts, an unknown nation,
met the Christ-child in disguise?
Christmas, Covid 19 and Brexit have made the headlines so much recently that other issues have been pushed aside. But in the time between my writing this and you reading it, it is inevitable that there will have been more incidents of boats overloaded with refugees being sunk in the Channel, or elsewhere in the world. And, as some people feast on turkey with all the trimmings, bodies of adults and children will have been washed up on beaches, or frozen in container lorries. The ‘problem’ of refugees is an everlasting one and their welcome into safety often far from cordial.
How does this link into the Christmas story and why do we need a ‘carol’ about the subject?
Nativity plays, crib scenes and many Christmas carols bring the shepherds and the Wise Men (or, more usually, kings!) to the manger to see the baby Jesus. People who are not familiar with the Bible stories – and quite a few who are – seem happy to accept the traditional picture of shepherds on one side and wise men on the other. But reading Matthew, Chapter 2 a little more carefully makes it easy to recognise that some time elapsed between the two visits. Jesus was a young child by the time the Wise Men found him and when King Herod sent his soldiers to murder Jesus, they were instructed to kill all the children in Bethlehem aged two and under. Fortunately, the Wise Men, who had not been too wise when they asked for Herod’s advice on where to find this baby king, came to their senses when, as so often happens in dreams, they realised the danger and left by another route. Likewise, Joseph, also picking up the danger signals, had his own dreaming experience and hastily removed the family to safety in Egypt. The slaughter that followed in Bethlehem proved how wise that decision had been.
Few of the carols we sing at Christmas tell the more gruesome side of this story: ‘Unto us a boy is born’ being the outstanding exception. Yet even that hymn does not refer to Mary, Joseph and Jesus becoming refugees in order to save their lives. Is that why why so many people cannot make the link and thoughtlessly think of refugees as intruders, or surplus to the population? They talk of border controls, as if defending the country from an invading army, and are unwilling to recognise that most refugees are fleeing from real hostility and danger and only seeking for a place to bring up their families in safety. This hymn was written to link the Christmas story with this issue, as it should be.
It began with a phrase that kept running around in my head. ‘Refugees risk exploitation’, had a certain poetic rhythm to it and I had been watching yet another news bulletin on the subject. Eventually the phrase became such an ‘earworm’ that I wrote it down to get it out of my mind. But the words persisted in bothering me and at a writing workshop at the Hymn Society conference a week or two later I began to write this text, changing the phrase very slightly in the process. Once the first line was on the page the rest of the text came remarkably quickly, because the refugee crisis was very much in the news at that time. The link with Mary and Joseph’s race to safety in Egypt only became apparent as I was writing. How were they received when they got there? Were they accepted, or met ‘with hate-filled eyes’?
Earlier in that conference we had been singing a hymn to the tune EBENEZER by Thomas Williams, a tune known in Welsh as TON-Y-BOTEL. My words began to fit that tune very well. EBENEZER is a tune well-loved by Welsh male voice choirs and I had heard it sung many times. It has a sturdy, determined feel about it, as the constant beat seems to echo the steady tramp of feet of pilgrims on a journey, or refugees searching for freedom. My limited musical knowledge means that I have no technical explanation for this, but my instincts told me it was right. However, another old tune, SCARLET RIBBONS, could be used as an alternative, producing a sad tone of hopelessness, yet ending on a hopeful note.
The language of many carols we sing during Advent and Christmas can sometimes be a mystery to those who only sing hymns during this season. Safe in the knowledge that they have not understood all that they were singing, they can happily leave the church to its archaic ways, not seeing much connection with their everyday lives, or social issues. This piece is inescapably linked with today’s world and its problems and prejudices.
So, we pray - for all refugees driven from their own country by famine, prejudice, danger, or persecution. We pray for those who are living in a foreign country, tolerated, but exploited; welcomed, but distrusted; working, but regarded as intruders; accepted, but warily, because of differences in culture and beliefs.
Compassionate God, you care for all your people and especially for those who have no one to care for them. Show us how we can offer welcome, safety, hope and comfort in your name and with your loving concern.