Following the birth of Jesus, a politically insecure Herod wants to know where the new king has been born. Yet the streetwise Magi take another route home, leaving Herod in the dark. The furious king strikes out blindly, sending his troops to Bethlehem to kill all the boys under two years of age. When Joseph learns of the impending violence, he and Mary escape with the baby Jesus to Egypt. This tragic part of the Gospel story is remembered in many western churches with the celebration on December 28 of the Feast Day of the Innocents.
Despite its own internal political conflicts and struggle to meet the needs of its own citizens, Egypt today still welcomes tens of thousands of refugees from other lands. These are not people who stay in rows of tents in dusty refugee camps, however. Although that’s a popular perception, most refugees in the world today live in urban settings, often crammed into small apartments on the streets your mother warned you never to walk at night.
Martha Lual and her husband Ochan Jok came to Cairo in 2004 from Malakal, a city in what is today South Sudan. Although the decades of civil war that ultimately split Sudan were beginning to wind down, they wanted to live in peace where their children could study. So they fled to Egypt, settling into a small fifth floor apartment in a crowded Cairo neighborhood. It hasn’t been an easy place to live, and Egyptians at times are less than welcoming. Jok, whose black skin and ritual facial scars make him easily distinguishable from most Egyptians, is occasionally called “monkey” or “donkey” when he walks down the street. Lual says she sometimes gets called a prostitute simply because of her race.
Despite such treatment, they’re not ready to go back home. They keep in regular touch by phone with relatives in South Sudan, which in recent weeks has been torn by savage political violence. They haven’t given up on their homeland, however. “Someday when our children graduate as doctors and teachers, they can return to South Sudan and help our country develop,” said Lual.
On the way to that educational goal, five of their children go to a school for refugee children based at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo. It provides quality education in English and Arabic, the languages of their home and adopted countries. Jok also studies there in the evenings; he’s currently in the equivalent of 8th grade.
The school is just one of many services that St. Andrew’s offers to refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants. It also provides legal assistance with resettlement, psycho-social help for refugees adjusting to their new life, and skills training for adult refugees struggling to survive economically. St. Andrew’s also provides a safe place for displaced people from many lands to come together as a community.
The critically important ministries of St. Andrew’s are supported by Church World Service, which has been doing similar work around the world for more than 65 years. In Egypt, where Jesus, Mary and Joseph found safe shelter from the political violence of their time, refugees continue to experience welcome, support and encouragement, thanks to CWS.
By Paul Jeffrey, a United Methodist photojournalist