Leaving home because you want to or because you can, is a very different experience of leaving home because you have to; because ‘home’ is no longer safe for you. And, leaving ‘home’ has another dimension to it.
Being forced to leave home is the situation today for about 78 million people around the world of whom about 13 million are under the age of 18. If they are lucky enough to find a country that will open their doors (borders) to them, they are able to craft some kind of new identity and new life for themselves. But it’s hard work and often a soul-destroying exercise. They live amongst us. Often keeping a low profile because it can take years to re-establish trust in society. Especially when your life experience has taught you that with a change in the political atmosphere, your neighbour can quickly become your enemy.
Since childhood, I have had the privilege of getting to know refugees. I grew up with refugees from Poland – Jewish and non-Jewish. I went to school with refugees from India and Pakistan. And in all of my ministries, I have had the privilege of listening to and honouring the lives of refugees from all over the world. Which is one of the reasons why at this stage in my life I personally disavow the concept of nationhood and like to think of myself as a citizen of planet earth. How grandiose is that some might say, but actually, I prefer to see it as a declaration of humility and humanity. I cannot think of any other way of stepping outside of all that comes with phrases like ‘ proud to be Australian, or Irish or French’.
Let me share with you a very brief story. For quite a few years my local doctor was an Australian from Sri Lanka. He had moved here via London in the early 1990s to escape the impacts of the civil war in his homeland. He still maintains a family estate near Kandy. His ties to Sri Lanka are very strong. We got to know each other really well once he learned of my interest in Sri Lanka. We talked about it whenever we met. His companionship was invaluable at the time of my cancer diagnosis. He had been a surgeon and was great support after the surgery and throughout my lengthy rehabilitation.
He had been especially interested in the reconciliation work a few of us were trying to do among the Sri Lankan diaspora in Victoria, as well as the work we were doing in Sri Lanka itself (our friend Larry Marshall did some brilliant work in this space). My Dr friend even came to our first Peace Building event with his wife and 3 children; an event which brought diaspora Sri Lankans together for a cricket match, followed by dinner and a concert. Sinhalese and Tamils and Burghers, young and old, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists all in the one place enjoying each other’s company.
Participating in the event was a huge step for him. A good man. A Buddhist. A good doctor. He was Sinhalese and very rarely mixed with Tamils, here or back home. He was of the ‘professional’ class. He had some very fixed views on who ware the true Sri Lankans, how the war began, how it ended, who should govern and how they should govern. As do many Sri Lankans here and at home. I saw him a few days after the peacebuilding event. He told me that he had felt quite overwhelmed by the experience of seeing so many people from his homeland putting the past behind them and getting along with each other – for the sake of a different future.
History certainly shapes us but it doesn’t have to define us. I think for the first time he had come to understand that building the kind of society you want to leave behind for your children is more important than the historical circumstances of our birth.