People On the Move

Syrian children stand at a fence April 23 at a refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey. (CNS photo/Sedat Suna, EPA)

Syrian children stand at a fence April 23 at a refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey. (CNS photo/Sedat Suna, EPA)

It is said that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel time of the year. Trains, planes and automobiles are filled with people this week as they happily go to celebrate this holiday weekend with family and friends in other parts of the country. Then, after a few days of feasting and fellowship – as well as recalling and giving thanks for all the blessings in their lives – they will travel again, perhaps a few pounds heavier, to return to their homes.

While we undertake this mass migration of people, we ought to keep in mind those others who have left their homes to go elsewhere not by their own free and voluntary choice, but by circumstance. These women, men and young people, families and individuals – including unaccompanied children – are on the move because they have been more or less forced to do so. They would have preferred to stay home and long to return, but violence, persecution, injustices, or other hardships have compelled them to seek refuge in other places.

During his trip to a U.S.-Mexican border town earlier this year, Pope Francis said, “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.”

The gravity of people having to flee oppressive conditions in their homeland cannot be underestimated. Thanksgiving having largely become a holiday to spend with family, we should realize just how much “forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice, and marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatizes people and destabilizes families” (Amoris Laetitia, 46).

Pope Francis observes the sad truth that having to seek refuge is not a new phenomenon, but is part of human history. In fact, rather than being able to return home to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth, he notes, “The Holy Family itself – Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus – were forced to emigrate in order to escape Herod’s threat: Joseph ‘rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod’” (Matthew 2:14-15).

Two millennia later, the waves of migrants seeking safety and security and all others who endure hardship can take comfort that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are with them in their journeys. In communion with the Holy Family and recognizing that we are all one human family, we too should be at their side.

As Americans, one of the things we can be thankful for is how this nation has always been a haven for people fleeing persecution, atrocities, slaughter and genocide. This is a heritage we should continue to embrace. More specifically, as Pope Francis has said, “It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation, in such a way as to make the conditions of migrants more humane.”

In the public policy dialogue concerning immigration reform, we are obliged to protect the inherent and fundamental dignity of each person. Moreover, concern for migrants and refugees is an essential quality that the Lord expects of his faithful people as a response of gratitude for the blessings we ourselves have received.

At the same time, what those who have been forced to migrate want most of all is to be able to return home, not build a new one in another land. Fundamental to long-term solutions to this crisis is eliminating the reasons why people are compelled to leave home in the first place. “It is absolutely necessary,” says our Holy Father, “to deal with the causes which trigger migrations in the countries of origin. This requires, as a first step, the commitment of the whole international community to eliminate the conflicts and violence that force people to flee.”

In recent years, genocide has been taking place in Iraq and Syria as Christians and other minorities have had to flee from Islamic State militants. The struggle now to liberate and secure places like Mosul and other places where Christians have historically called home for centuries has not been easy. Our prayers and voices in solidarity with them and with all people everywhere who are on the move against their own choice are needed today as much as ever.

As we traverse the highways and byways this holiday season, we should remember those who, facing violence and other threats to life and freedom, have felt compelled to leave their homes. We can express thanks to God for the blessings in our life by keeping these sisters and brothers in our thoughts and prayers, speaking out on their behalf, and continuing to work for God’s kingdom of peace and love.