I Was A Refugee

The Winter 2016 issue of Spectrum features articles about the World's Migrant Crisis. The issue explores biblical perspectives on the immigration debate, provides first-hand stories of migrants and the Adventist communities working to assimilate and care for refugees, and offers accounts from Serbia, Macedonia and the Middle East. To receive Spectrum quarterly, become a member of Adventist Forum by clicking here. In the following essay Tom de Bruin, writing from the Netherlands, reflects on how his family's experiences as refugees has shaped his understanding. -Ed

I'm from a family of refugees. My father fled cold, post-war Holland for the promise of a better future in South Africa. My grandmother’s family is descended from the Huguenots, who fled to Holland centuries ago. On my mother’s side we are Afrikaners. In the seventeenth century we fled from Holland to Cape Town, and later we fled from the British into the interior of Africa. I, myself, am an economic refugee. I fled to Holland with my parents when I was twelve, just a year after the fall of apartheid.

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit about myself. I have had a Dutch passport since birth. While we didn’t flee the country fearing for our lives, we also couldn’t tell anyone we were going. My friends didn’t know I was leaving the country. We were almost stopped at the airport. Simply leaving the country was tricky back then.

My own experiences as a refugee are wholly incomparable with those of the millions of refugees worldwide. But even for me, the impact of this move on my life was enormous. Packing your things, leaving your home, telling no one where you were going, and then building a new life in a strange land with strange customs. If this relatively civilized, intercontinental migration influenced me so much, how terrible must it be for the millions who have left everything behind, fleeing for their lives? I cannot imagine, and I don’t think anyone who has not experienced it can.


It’s very hard to deal with experiences you cannot imagine. My mentor always reminded me that I needed to walk a mile in the other’s shoes. But how can you do that if the other doesn’t even have shoes? How can we be compassionate to people who experience the unimaginable? This lack of compassion is evident in the terrible reactions that we read and hear in media. Refugees are burglars breaking into our country. Refugees are an army that is occupying our territory. Refugees are only after our money and quality of life. Refugees are murderers and rapists. In Europe we see that refugee housing is being attacked: racist slurs on the walls, pig heads on the gates.

Question Marks

Many people think that these atrocities are just the voice of a populist minority. But government policy is not far behind. In Switzerland and Denmark, the government wants to take all valuables – especially money and jewels – from ‘their’ refugees. In parts of the United Kingdom refugees were forced to constantly wear red armbands. Comparisons to the Second World War are not at all hard to make.

These reactions do not occur in a vacuum. Refugees do lead to additional costs for governments, which is clearly frightening if you already have economic worries. Refugees come from different countries and cultures, which brings change – especially in monocultural communities. And, yes, there have been some terrible instances of social misconduct where refugees were involved.

All in all, dealing with the millions of refugees is quite a challenge. Even if you are totally committed to helping every single refugee, sociological issues remain. For example, how are we to deal with the intolerance towards women that flees together with the Syrian refugees?

We Own Our Country

The fundamental principle of the entire refugee crisis is that a group of people have ultimate say in an area. In my case, we have agreed that something called ‘the Dutch’ exists. ‘The Dutch’ are sovereign over a part of the world called ‘The Netherlands.’ People who, for one reason or another, are not part of ‘the Dutch’ can only settle in this area if they have permission. ‘The Dutch’ have agreed to take care of certain things in ‘the Netherlands’: democracy, freedom, safety, social equality and tolerance. People from outside the borders can be seen as a threat to these important values, and as dangerous for the area and its inhabitants. That’s why, some argue, we need to be careful that the stream of refugees does not undermine the core principles of ‘the Netherlands.’

The idea that a particular group of people are sovereign in a particular area is the fundamental assumption on which democracy is based. It is the foundation that nearly the entire world order is built on. But we Christians, as critics of the world, could bring some serious doubts about this idea to the table.


In 2017, all the Youth Directors of the unions in Europe will organise a European Youth Conference. About four thousand young people will gather in Valencia, Spain for a week of worship and service. As you can imagine, it is a lot of work to organise such an event, so the preparations started last September. The first item of business: a theme. After a day of meetings, brainstorming, praying, and more meetings we had an idea: travellers.

Now this may not immediately sound like the most inspiring theme. But if you consider the topic for a bit longer, you will notice quite a bit of theological depth. As Christians we understand that we are travellers on this earth. We are guests here and we are responsible for taking care of the earth while we are on it. God owns the world, and he has given it to humankind to take care of – he has given it to all his children. This means that, as Christians, we should know that any other person, wherever they may come from, is a transient traveller just like us. Every traveller should have the same rights.

God’s Earth

If we all are travellers, what remains of our beloved democracy? What remains of the earthly kingdoms and powers? Are they fallacies; do they not exist? Should they not exist? These are tricky questions, with nuanced and complicated answers, but what remains is that God and the Spirit transcend these human concepts. The Dutch may believe in the Netherlands, but God transcends that. We may think we are sovereign on our own soil, but the Spirit reminds us that all the earth is God’s land.

For Christians it should be very easy. The earth is God’s, and we are honoured that we – all of us – can live here. Very rightly you could ask: Who are we to decide who can and cannot live somewhere?

Thousands of Refugees in the Bible

The Bible leaves no doubt about how to treat refugees. I think it has good reasons for this. There are thousands of refugees in the Bible. Count with me. Adam and Eve flee from Eden. Cain flees after his murderous crime. Noah flees the flood, Abraham and his family flee both into and from Egypt. Abraham’s family are all constant refugees: his nephew Lot flees out of Sodom, his son Ishmael flees into the desert, his other son Isaac flees to the land of the Philistines, his grandson Jacob flees from his twin Esau and later from his uncle Laban. Even later, Jacob and his family flee into Egypt, and years later Moses flees from Egypt twice. First alone, later with all the Israelites. Thousands of refugees – and this was just the first of sixty-six books in the Bible!

At first glance, then, it’s not hard to understand why God gives the Israelites so many very specific laws about refugees. The children of God are constant refugees before the giving of the law, so it seems wholly logical that God tells them: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God’ (Leviticus 19:33–34).

Yet it is profoundly intriguing that God gives this law to the Israelites. Surely the Israelites should know what it is to flee for your life and to have to live in strange land. Surely the Israelites should know what it is to be a second-class citizen. Surely the Israelites should know what it feels like to be a refugee and an alien. I would expect that the Israelites wouldn’t need this law.

Problems that Refugees Bring

Linked to this intriguing law is another intriguing fact. The Bible, no matter how often it talks of refugees, seems hardly interested in discussing the challenges that refugees bring to a society. I can’t imagine that the modern world is unique in having one or two caveats regarding immigrants and refugees. The Israelites must have had similar worries. The Bible does not address them.

The only thing that comes close to these worries in the Bible is the requirement that aliens keep the laws of the land. The Bible does not discuss the troubles associated with the different religion that will accompany the refugees. A word is not wasted on the dangers of changing morals and ethics. Economic pressure is not addressed, nor are the costs of providing food or housing for these new people. Quite the opposite, actually: the Israelites get scores of laws that ensure that refugees don’t starve and are taken care of (see, for example, Leviticus 19:9–10).

The Bible spares no words for the troubles that refugees could bring to the Israelites. The Bible only discusses how we should treat other children of God, who come from a different part of his world. And, sadly, even though you would hope that the Israelites, refugees themselves, would know how to treat others, God still needs to tell remind them to take care of the others among them.

You or the Other?

Now, it may appear strange that God still needs to tell the Israelites to treat immigrants properly. It appears as if it may be something inherently human to think of yourself first, and the other second. It appears as if the Israelites, now that they are no longer aliens, now that they have some sort of land of their own, have totally forgotten what it is to be a stranger in a strange land (Exodus 2:22). It appears as if the Israelites are treating the strangers in their land just as badly as the Egyptians treated them.

It should be no surprise that this discussion of you versus the other stays at the forefront of the biblical teachings. Jesus teaches, again and again, that we should treat the other as we would like to be treated ourselves. Jesus, who is always both a refugee and an alien: God in the body of a human, as a baby with no place to rest his head, and as a child fleeing from Herod. Jesus knows what it is to be a refugee.

The life and words of Jesus are the main focus of the book of Hebrews. This is where we can find what might be the most inspirational and beautiful text regarding aliens, immigrants, refugees, and hospitality. ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:1–2). Hebrews refers to the ancient stories of two refugees: Abraham and Lot. Abraham who welcomed strangers and heard he would have a child, strangers who turned out to be angels. Lot who received travelers and heard he should flee for his life, strangers who turned out to be angels. Both of these ancient refugees were hospitable to these angel-aliens. Not because they knew they were angels, but because they were the kind of people who are hospitable to aliens.

This may be the most inspiring thought to face the current challenges. Be kind to the strangers – who knows, they too might be angels.

Tom de Bruin is Director of Communications for the Netherlands Union Conference. This article first appeared in that union's official publication, Advent.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7385

Thank you, Tom, for a thoughtful reflection on this Good Friday.

Jesus himself was a refugee and a traveller… And journeyed to the very end… Stating that his kingdom was not of this world …

So much to ponder.

1 Like

Some knowledge of the concept of cause and effect should be employed here.

The countries in question didnt make them wear arm bands for a hoot. They didnt decide to take their valuables for a hoot. Both of these things came as a consequence of wholly ungrateful masses braking their hosts houses and country in pieces and assaulting their women.
These are not refugees. There are videos showing many of them saying if they dont get to live in whatever european country they want and get given apartments with internet they will go back to Syria.
Why then present your piece in such a one sided way?

What will you say when a bunch of refugees come and force you out of your house?

Again we get back to what constitutes a refugee? The bible is clear.
MARK 3:27
"No man can enter into a strong man’s house and despoil his goods, unless he will first bind the strong man; and then he will despoil his house."
Are these refugees?
What are the passages key points?
The man is resisting people who would come in his house and despoil it.
other wise why the need to tie him up?
In this case, the Netherlands and others have tied themselves up.

Mark 3:24 And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

25 And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

So the price of your version of treatment of refugees is that your country fails?


“If we all are travellers, what remains of our beloved democracy? What remains of the earthly kingdoms and powers? Are they fallacies; do they not exist? Should they not exist? These are tricky questions, with nuanced and complicated answers, but what remains is that God and the Spirit transcend these human concepts.” Thank you.

The only pre-requisite the OT gives is that refugees should keep the law of the land. This is where the rub is. If groups of refugees are coming into a country not doing that, or looking to live under their own system of law, i.e., Sharia…then there is a real problem. Nations and nation states are defined by shared language, culture, borders, and rule of law. Paul speaks of the latter as God-ordained, in Romans 13. The stories from the U.K., of police not able or willing to go into certain areas where Sharia is dominant, and of a parallel culture that does not see itself as bound to the laws of the land, is creating all kinds of societal tension, and a breakdown of that law in those areas. It creates a volatile and dangerous problem within the entire culture.

Nation states, and their law codes, which implies agreed upon values, culture, and yes, borders, are part of this age in which we live. To protest and work for the change of unjust laws, treatment, and practices within those states, especially towards the disenfranchised, is appropriate…and very necessary. But, to subvert the entire concept in favor of a utopian world without borders, would be to subvert the very arrangement that Romans says that God has put in place for this present age.

On the flip side, Muslim immigrants have been systematically kept out of the mainstream of European societies, in terms of housing, job opportunities, economic advancement, and social acceptance. Is it any wonder that there is such a problem with radicalization in those countries, especially when compared with the U.S… a nation of immigrants? Disaffection provides fertile ground for such to take place, with the results we’ve seen in its train.

The Christian response would be to transcend, land, blood, and tribe, in our treatment of the other. I believe that would be the social commentary that would speak most forcefully within each culture. Not simply what we say, but what we do in regard to the other.