I Was a Stranger

Learning about the Syrian refugee crisis led an American student to put her faith to action, sparking a career in advocating for refugees.

Laura McCarter, Refugee and Immigration Policy Advisor

As a college student, I began learning about the unrest in Syria that sparked an escalating refugee crisis. I’d previously traveled to Lesotho, Africa, and long had a heart for the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. But the growing violence and humanitarian crisis in Syria caught my heart in a new and different way, and I needed to do something to respond.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus lives out the lesson he taught, that true love is being mindful of the needs of others and acting to meet those needs. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah writes, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). When Isaiah talks about the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow, he is citing examples of those who do not have a natural protector, who are especially vulnerable as the administration of justice does not extend to them.

As I read about the millions of children and families fleeing Syria, I saw how refugees faced a similar plight. Their government no longer protected them and, in many cases, tried to harm them. They became strangers in a land they once called home.

Throughout college, I pressed into the crisis in Syria and my newfound heart for refugees—especially the many children whose lives were upended by a situation beyond their own understanding. I read books, wrote papers, prayed prayers, and even took a semester of Arabic just in case I ever had the opportunity to work with Syrian refugees. God placed refugees on my heart for a purpose, and I knew that purpose had to be something deeper than writing papers and getting grades.

When I entered graduate school in 2016, I began to see God’s plan unfold. In one of my classes, I saw a flyer about a partnership forming in my community to resettle a Syrian refugee family—I couldn’t believe it. What were the odds that Syrian refugees would come to a college town in Southwest Virginia?

Small world? No, big God.

I volunteered to help as a tutor, and one Sunday afternoon, I went with other tutors to meet the family and their children. So much about this encounter reminded me of the goodness, power, and affirmation of God. With the little Arabic I remembered from my college semester, I introduced myself to the father of the family—my name, where I was from, and my favorite color. His response was of complete, genuine appreciation. He said coming to this town was the first time in four years—since he’d left Syria—that he felt human. I cried as I left that day. My heart broke for this family, my new friends and neighbors, but I knew this was where healing would begin.

In the following year, five more families were resettled in our community. I tutored three high schoolers, cheered at numerous soccer games, celebrated birthdays, and shared stories over countless cups of tea. Though the time came for me to move on from that college town, God opened doors that allowed me to intern with a policy team at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State, and eventually I found my way to Bethany. At Bethany, I continue to advocate for refugees and immigrants in my role as refugee and immigration policy advisor.

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet is there at the table with refugees I once welcomed as they began life in a new country, who now welcome me as family in the life they’ve created.

We may not be united by the color of our skin, the language we speak, or even the food we eat, but we find a natural unity in the fact that we’re all made in the image of God. Though once strangers to each other, we were hungry, and we shared food; we were thirsty, and we shared tea; we were strangers, and we welcomed each other.

What if the Bible, rather than politics, shaped our views on immigration? The Evangelical Immigration Table’s “I Was a Stranger” Challenge invites Christians to read one Bible passage each day for 40 days related to the topic of immigration and to prayerfully seek God’s heart about how to respond. You can join the challenge and access other resources at EvangelicalImmigrationTable.com/IWasAStranger.

Learn more about Bethany’s refugee and immigrant services