Immigrants and refugees, that is.
I was asked this question at the BBYO teen conference. “As a Muslim, how does the immigrant and refugee experience connect to your faith? How does your experience as a Muslim Pakistani-American inform the way you think about this issue?’
Honestly, I had not thought about it that way. When you live certain values, how often do you think about its origin! When you choose a healthy menu for an evening meal, do you ponder, ‘Let me buy range-free chicken, because the Prophet Muhammad advised….’? Probably not. Whereas the connection with faith is there, but you live that value because that is how you were raised, and it becomes so much a part of how you live, that you don’t think about its genesis.
The question certainly got me thinking. And now I understand why I feel the way I do about immigrants and refugees. Not because I was once an immigrant—which I was; and not because I am a refugee—which I am not; but because it is rooted in my faith. Actually, in all faiths.
When the Prophet Muhammad was persecuted by the Meccans, he migrated from Mecca to Medina. He and his companions fled in the night, and as they hid in a cave, a spider spun its web on the opening of the cave. When the pursuers reached the cave, seeing a spider’s web, they moved on. The Hand of God! The people of Medina gave him refuge. The Prophet of a great religion, was once an immigrant and a refugee. As a consequence of his migration, he was able to establish a Muslim community where faith flourished. That moment in history—his migration—or the Hijra, is what marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. That is how pivotal that moment in Muslim history is. Each year when we mark the beginning of the Muslim calendar, we are reminded that the Prophet left his home, his roots, so that he could spread the message of the Oneness of God, and of social justice.
“Sounds familiar?” I asked the Jewish teens in the audience.
Sure did. Prophet Moses’ exodus from Egypt to the Sinai, marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar. How about that! A pivotal moment in our shared history—the Prophet of the Hebrews, an immigrant, a refugee. The pursuers came after them, and the sea parted to let them through. The Hand of God!
Lets go back even further. Prophet Jesus. His early years were spent as a refugee in a foreign land where he was taken to escape Herod, and later as a displaced person in Nazareth, a long way from home.
We can keep going back through the history of the prophets…all the way to Abraham.
The Qur’an speaks of oppressed and weak people on earth and suggests that they could migrate from their oppressed positions to another land of God. The verse says, “Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refuge?” (4:97).
True to that spirit, as of mid-2015, Muslim countries have topped the list in welcoming refugees. Turkey, with 1.8 million, Pakistan with 1.5 million, followed by Lebanon, and Iran. Sure, geographical proximity plays a role, but the driving force is religious conviction, the equivalent of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”
So back to the original question: What’s my Pakistani background got to do with it. Everything. My mother was a refugee. When the British colonists left India, my mother and my grandparents migrated from what is now India, to Pakistan. They were welcomed into the new nation, and rehabilitated. When Russia invaded Afghanistan, refugees poured over the border into Pakistan, and the country welcomed them. A million five!
May I go beyond ‘faith’ and my ‘Pakistani heritage’ and say that other than compassion, there is sociological value in welcoming an outsider.
I will quote just one: It reduces crime.
Yes indeed. I read it in print, in an Editorial in the Wall Street Journal today, ‘Crime and Immigration.’ In 200 metropolitan areas, crime decreased as immigration increased; and cities with larger immigrant populations, have lower crime rates. These are published studies—not mere opinion. Copious research also shows that immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born Americans. As authorities and institutions grapple with the new travel ban, we have some hard facts looking us right in the face.
Something tells me—and there I go with my faith again—that,
The Hand of God will part the sea, once again,
As It did, once before.