As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe for over two years now, it does not seem to deter the fear of thousands of people wanting to flee their own country for a better future and a better life.
“Coronavirus is nothing compared to the war in my country,” an asylum seeker from Africa said to me on one quiet afternoon during the first national lockdown. “People are not afraid of the virus–they are more afraid of the war.” She said this with a sad tone. She must have felt so helpless that she could not do anything to help her family back home nor be there with them during the difficult times. She herself has been stuck in the asylum claiming process in this country for many years without any certainty of progress in getting her “papers” processed. “There is too much stress here.” She would hold her head every time she talked about her situation, “I can only pray,” and would normally end the conversation with this hopeful statement that seemed appropriate and gave her much consolation.
Derek, a young man with a good job and perspective of life in his country, decided to flee Iran to seek a safer place to live where he could freely express his thoughts and religion. He walked thousands of miles, day and night for months, leaving everything behind, readily risking his life on the journey in order to find a new life. He is just another person whom I met who is caught in the same situation as many other asylum seekers are.
Derek is not alone. There are thousands more like him, losing hope in their country and leaving home behind. Some were trying to save their own lives. Many have hoped to join their family while others hope to bring over their family for reunion once they have settled in the country.
Those who have successfully crossed the English Channel would go on to seek asylum. It may seem to be a joyous moment stepping foot on the new land. Yet to live in the next minute and hour in the unknown, the fate to claim a legal document to stay in the country remains uncertain. They live on a paltry allowance of $25 per week merely relying on donations and charities. Many waited for years to be able get their “papers” and then to find a job.
The recent Nationality and Borders Bill that tackles illegal immigration and enables citizenship to be removed without notice if it would “not reasonably practicable” are just adding fuel to the fire. Despite the new legislation, people are still willing to take the risk, including the 27 souls that were tragically lost in the sea while crossing the English Channel in recent months.
It is impossible to experience what these people have gone through mentally and physically. Hearing their stories has been emotional and dramatic. It is difficult to keep up with their worries, fear, and traumatized experiences. they have gone through a complete change of life in a completely new country, new language and culture. Th e feeling of homelessness has never been so real.
Despite the feeling of gloom and doom, the Columban missionaries in Britain, in partnership with local charities and Archdiocese of Birmingham, work to provide shelter and sanctuary to women asylum seekers. One of the projects, Fatima House, where I work, has hosted almost forty women asylum seekers since its establishment five years ago. I am privileged to be part of the volunteering team of Fatima House where I accompany these women and become part of their family. It is a place of hope and of welcoming where we establish friendship that does not look for a return. Many women have received their “papers,” moved on and became successful in life. they never cease to be grateful for the support and care that has been provided to them at Fatima House. “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12) is what I have experienced through the faith of the women at Fatima House.
Christ is in all of this. Like the Holy Family who were called by the Angel of God to flee home and take refuge in foreign lands, they too have experienced poverty, suffering, flight and exile. Courage, strength and faith are the glories I attribute to those who have taken flight to follow their dreams. they have shown me the courage to embrace realities and the unknowns, the strength to stretch beyond limitations and resilience, faith to envision new hopes and dreams. they have taught me what faith is about. they stay connected to their dreams and to their gods. they have brought heaven closer to earth where God never fails to attend to any person who is in despair, not even a person who is considered a stranger and a nonbeliever. To know them and to listen to them is to better understand and know God, who is love. they have taught me to partake in the fullness of humanity and of life because “We too were once asylum seekers.”
Columban lay missionary Sophia Chee Tzu Ting lives and works in Britain.