Two weeks ago I was sitting in a tent in Calais with 4 men who have fled their beautiful hometown near Damascus in Syria because it has been destroyed by bombs. One of the men was a chicken farmer. He showed me a picture of his farm of over 2,000 chickens, which has now been destroyed. His friend was a teacher who has left his wife and daughter in Syria. I asked them who they felt was responsible and how they imagined it would end. They shrugged and said, “Daesh (ISIS)… Russia… Assad… all of them.” They have hope in the Free Syrian Army to resist Assad and the advance of Daesh, but ultimately they feel their only option is to remove themselves from their beloved land.
These men have travelled several hundred miles to get to France. They’re the ones who took massive risks getting on wobbly boats and paying smugglers €2,000 for passage to Europe. They have education and professions, a few words of English, and an unwavering determination to get to the UK. They feel that the UK is where they have the best chance of building a life for themselves and their families. The chicken farmer had managed to sneak onto the ferry the previous night by holding on to the underside of a lorry, only to be discovered and removed from the ship.
Our first reaction was to try to explain that the UK just isn’t that great (is that the begrudging Irish coming out in me?!). We tried to explain the concept of “the grass is always greener on the other side” – an attempt to warn them that they may face disappointments if they imagine the UK to be dripping with milk and honey. We got fairly blank stares. Because, of course, our experience and imagination of problems are so radically different. We quickly shut up and received their warm hospitality of coffee and Shisha.
One question I had was about their wives and children who were left in Syria. Were they worried about them? Yes, of course. Were they safe? They couldn’t guarantee it. They said they rely on God to protect their loved ones. In a strange moment of a shared acknowledgment of the Divine, we began to pray.
They prayed a prayer in Arabic to Allah, and we all joined hands and prayed a prayer in the name of Jesus.
Suddenly the magnitude of the situation is brought into focus. We are all trying to build a good life for ourselves and for others. Volunteers flood in to give a helping hand, without reflecting on the fact that they may be perpetuating the problem. Local fascist groups target the volunteers in an attempt to protect their town. The police fire out tear-gas to prevent refugees from illegally boarding lorries and making their drivers liable to smuggling. And refugees choose to remain undocumented and refuse offers from the French authorities of purpose-built shelters. We are all trying to build a good life for ourselves and for others, yet we all fall hopelessly short of what we imagine. Jesus said, you will always have the poor with you. No matter what political solutions we come up with, we have never managed to rid the world of poverty, corruption and greed. Yet in us is planted the seed of perfection. We have an inkling of a perfect world, a holy longing. That is why the words and actions of Jesus Christ can never be old-fashioned or outdated. He came to this world to redeem it and restore it, a work which has begun in the hearts of all who believe in him and which will continue until the plague of corruption, greed and poverty is finally abolished.
 Matt 26:11