Strangers in the Night:  Recovering the Risks of Friendship, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Jul

Barbed Wire 2

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  Helen Keller

Great perils have this beauty that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

This week at the UN “featured” what appears to be a growing rift between the increasingly abusive and defiant government of Burundi and the concerns of the international community; a lack of “positive news” (ASG Muller) on still-besieged areas in Syria with nothing even approximating positive news on Yemen or Gaza; and renewed violence in the Central African Republic which mourned a new round of peacekeeper casualties.

Given all this, and throw the DPRK into the mix, and it surely must seem like a policy cop-out to reference this International Day of Friendship, one of the UN’s “can’t we just all get along” moments that might well seem superfluous to the serious policy challenges on our plate, including those related to the vast human mobility which seems now to have stretched our resources and caring capacities up to and even past their limit.

So much of migration now is what the UN policy community refers to as “irregular,” what the rest of us might well refer to as “forced.”  People on the move less for economic opportunity or a fresh start but to escape horrific conditions of war and its remnants, of drought and its famines, of atrocities and their multiple scars. Families escaping bombs they neither built nor dropped; drought and food insecurity from climate change they did virtually nothing to impact; atrocities perpetrated against them based on culture and genetics more than on any active political resistance or military threat.

And, as we know, the uncertain path forward for many fleeing insecurity is lined with more of the same.  Securing adequate family sustenance can be every bit as much a challenge on the move as it was in the drought and conflict zones from which they fled.  Traffickers abound and prey on vulnerabilities of all kinds, offering false hope to persons otherwise verging on “no hope” at all.   Abuses at the hands of those ostensibly providing “protection” simply magnify the insecurity, especially for children cut off from any modicum of protection that families might otherwise have provided.  And that barbed wire at the end of what is often a long and life-threatening journey is perhaps the strongest sign of people once betrayed by much of global governance and the human family who have been forsaken yet again.

As we have noted often, and as has been carefully and compassionately documented in “Turning Strangers into Friends,” edited by Liberato Bautista on behalf of Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM),  the “regular” migration that is the goal of UN policy deliberations can be fraught with its own dangers: hostility at airports and border crossings; icy stares from persons on the street who believe that any stranger represents a danger;  threats from states to deport even single parents from family units; employers all-too-willing to cheat or abuse employees on the assumption that legal systems are mostly disinterested in migrants’ rights.

And as Bautista and colleagues have summarized in their Talking and Doing Points issued prior to their recent Berlin consultation, these are only a few of the factors that compromise the safety and dignity of “uprooted peoples,” factors that demand good policy from institutions like the UN but also more consistent and person-centered hospitality from those who claim to value dignity for all. The UN is trying to do its part to overcome some residual state resistance to the establishment and dissemination of a Global Compact on Migration that will hopefully facilitate safer, orderly and more “regular” migration patterns.   A Compact-related consultation held at the UN this week, chaired ably by Mexico and Switzerland and featuring Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, stressed a number of important points for the migration policy community including the right of voluntary return, the importance of protecting (and even expanding) remittances, the need for more accurate data on all aspects of human mobility, the value of providing proper “documentation” for migrants and rethinking restrictions on “dual citizenship,” the many cultural and capacity benefits of “diaspora outreach,” and the need to step up “conflict prevention” efforts to help stem the flow of persons who feel that they have no option but to flee bombs overhead and landmines under foot.

There was even welcome discussion of the importance of moving beyond “whole of government” to “whole of society” approaches to addressing migration’s opportunities and challenges.  This point had particular resonance for us. “Turning strangers into friends,” accompanying those in ways we would wish to be accompanied, is not only about having the right national and global policies, not only about having the most progressive words appear in our declarations and resolutions, but about having the proper dispositions in communities; about seeing ourselves, indeed our common survival, reflected in the often fearful eyes of those who now appear as strangers to us.

This disposition remains in distressingly short supply, both within and outside communities of faith.

Even in a city like New York, which prides itself on its many cultures and more recently its resistance to new US federal policies clamping down on migrants of all stripes, there is a need to up our game on the hospitality, “mercy” and friendship called for by the CWWM.  For too many of us, even now, the promise of diversity is only casually engaged.   We sample the food of migrants but rarely share their dreams.   We attend the festivals of migrants but are mostly absent from their logistical challenges and major life transitions.  We are tolerant of migrants’ presence but mostly stick closely (on and off our phones) to our smaller, like-minded circles.

With all due regard for the “compassion fatigue” that seems to be sweeping the planet, and with all blessings extended to those who put their safety on the line every day to care for the otherwise forsaken, hospitality and friendship for migrants must become a long-term commitment for more of the rest of us.  This is not some pious liberal call, but rather stems from a belief — abundant evidence for which emerges regularly from UN conference room — that the factors pushing people to risk the lives of their children to escape the carnage of their daily lives are likely to grow in number and intensity, at least for the time being.

So while we are urgently figuring out a plan to regulate the growing ranks of the  unregulated, while this clock counting down the deadline for our common survival is still ticking, we have urgent work to do ourselves, to do on ourselves.   We have to find better ways to keep our hearts open, to offer friendship and hospitality that is not about charity but about, as noted by Lester Ruiz, “the opportunity to live well together in the context of our shared differences.”   And we must learn how to accompany others recovering from a displacement they so often did not choose, in part as a means of learning how we would wish to be accompanied when it is our turn to face grave insecurity.

This is friendship in the best sense, the friendship that walks in as others are running out, that absorbs anxieties when others are pushing them away, and that elicits practical offers of hospitality beyond the boundaries of personal convenience.   This is the friendship I have been blessed to receive over and over in my life.  This is friendship worthy of our times, practices that can bring deeper meaning to policies directed towards that “fraternity of strangers” longing to find their way home.

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