October 17 – African Responses to Forced Displacement

On Tuesday, October 17 the Butler Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs presented Religion, Refugees, and Migration: African Responses to Forced Displacement. Neighboring countries within Africa have played the biggest role in welcoming refugees fleeing genocide and civil war. The seminar’s speakers reflect diverse perspectives on the movement of people within Africa, as well as beyond.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Rev. Dr. Jan Holton, who has conducted ethnographic research in various parts of Africa and has authored two books: Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality (2016) and Building the Resilient Community: Lessons from the Lost Boys of Sudan (2008). Holton served on the faculty at Yale University Divinity School and currently works with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, CT.

Holton opened by explaining that working with refugees and refugee resettlement is not just a career but something near and dear to her heart. She is thankful that this series has included Africa because it is often forgotten about when thinking of the refugee crisis. Not only are the conflicts themselves a tragedy but the conflicts in Africa seldomly make it to the front pages of newspapers or become trending on social media. Most people are unaware of the tragedies taking place across the continent. Sudan is right behind Syria and Afghanistan in the largest refugee producing conflicts in the world today. Holton explains that we are currently in the midst of the greatest humanitarian crisis of forced displacement since WWII. The tragedy of which she suggests is matched only by the collective moral disregard demonstrated by many Western nations in recent responses to refugees and asylum seekers. There is an underlying theme here and that makes us reflect on our nation’s moral obligations to care about people who have to flee their homes due to violence and conflict. Holton’s work focuses on the psychological, spiritual, and social needs of refugees.

Holton describes the three different types of communities she sees when looking at refugee resettlement: reluctant and averse, good neighbor, and welcome embrace. The first, ‘reluctant and adverse’, is resistant to helping but does so due to some obligation. The conditions are typically not comfortable and there is now outward effort to make it comfortable. An example of this would be putting the refugee camp in the middle of barren land where the land is not farmable and there is not plentiful water. The second community is the ‘good neighbor’ community. This group is classified by a good working relationship between the refugee community and the surrounding communities. The two groups would share resources and become more of an integrated community rather than separate entities. The last community is the ‘welcome embrace’ community which is more of a national effort to make the refugees feel comfortable and welcome. People living in these communities have said that it is the best place to live as a refugee. In these communities within Uganda, there is a compassionate refugee policy that gives each refugee a plot of land where they can settle, grow crops, and feed their families. This helps make refugees’ lives as close to normal life as possible.

Holton displayed a picture of a Sudanese refugee named Pricilla for the audience. Holton said that Pricilla puts a face on the refugee story. She reminds  us that they are more than their label and are individuals, mothers, brothers, daughters, and sisters. Refugees have dreams and look toward the future, even though they are in dire circumstances. Pricilla is 1 of 22.5mil refugees in the world today, she lived in a refugee camp for 16yrs, one year shy of the average length of stay for a refugee in Africa. He son was one of the 1% chosen to be resettled in the United States. He was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. A young man who had been in a refugee camp for over ten years asked Rev. Dr. Holton, “Do they know we are suffering?”

Kizito Kalima was the first respondent of the evening and is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Kalima has spoken to a variety of audiences nationally and internationally, including the United Nations and the Rwandan National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide.

Kalima explained that what got him through is time in the refugee camps was sports and basketball in particular. It was basketball that opened the doors for Kalima. A high school and then college scholarship to play basketball is what allowed him to come to the United States. Kalima shared that he was angry and sought revenge in the years following his displacement. He was diagnosed with PTSD along with many other psychological disorders. It was his prolonged anger that prompted him to found the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Kalima says that the forgiveness piece is because he, along with other refugees, frequently ask “why.” They want to know why their family was murdered, why they are being shot at, why they have to move around and live in poor conditions.

Kalima explains that refugees from Africa are not dangerous or something to be feared; they just want a better life. All these refugees need is a little window for them to escape from. For Kalima, it was a basketball. Kalima asked that the leaders of tomorrow to remember that if they give a refugee a chance, whatever situation they will be in here will be better than what they were enduring back in their home country. Kalima closed by saying that refugees are resilient.  

Dr. Robin Turner, the last respondent of the evening,  is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Butler University, research associate of the Society, Work, and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and coordinator of the African Studies minor at Butler University.

Dr. Turner began by responding to a question proposed by Rev. Dr. Holton, “What are our obligations to care?” Dr. Turner answered by saying that she believes in the idea of ubuntu, ‘I am because we are.’ To her, this solidifies the idea that our humanity is directly linked to that of others and this is why we have a moral obligation to help refugees and displaced people.

First, when we think of African responses to displaced people they are neither better than nor worse than what we see in other places around the world. There are some that absolutely embrace the moral obligation to help and there are some that reject it. Those who reject it seek to form an “us” and a “them.” They seek to exclude those who are perceived are “them.”

Second, if we want to understand xenophobia, then we must look at these responses in a historical context. One of the things that surprised her the most in South Africa was expressed xenophobia that she encountered by South Africans. This was confusing to her growing up during Apartheid, as she knew that many South Africans left the country, sought refuge, and were welcomed by other countries. So, coming to South Africa post-Apartheid and experiencing xenophobia did not quite make sense at first. Turner believes this is because this othering is deeply rooted in South African history and state policies. Post-Apartheid leaders failed to address the history of exclusion and to build an expansive national identity. Turner has seen this same pattern in many other countries as well. People are being raised in a countries with atmospheres that reflects exclusion, creating xenophobia.

The Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs is a program of the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University in partnership with Global and Historical Studies, the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation, and Global Justice, the Philosophy, Religion, and Classics Department, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, the Immigrant Welcome Center, and Catholic Charities Indianapolis Refugee and Immigrant Services.

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