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Refugees: call for action

Muslims all around the world just celebrated Hijri, the Islamic New Year, and welcomed the year 1435. I wish a happy, blessed and prosperous year for all fellow Muslims together with the rest of humanity and all of creation for that matter. Muslims, like Jews and some other religious and ethnic groups, use the lunar calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. This difference makes all Muslim days of observance and celebration float around the calendar year. We celebrate our festivals, like Ramadan, in almost every season. For those faith communities who always celebrate their religious holidays around the same season, Muslim holy days present a striking difference.

How this lunar Muslim calendar came into existence is worth reflection. What marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar was neither Muhammad’s birth, nor the moment when he started receiving revelations at the age of 40, nor his successful return to Mecca nor any other low or high point in his prophetic career. It was his journey—or Hijra. His immigration to Medina was chosen as a starting point for the Muslim countdown in history. It was this successful immigration experience that made Islam possible. Muhammad and his followers faced fierce persecution and fatal threats in Mecca. The status quo in Mecca had no tolerance for this new movement and was absolutely determined to eradicate it. In the face of these threats, those early Muslims migrated to a new city with hopes of having a better future. They became refugees in this new city and went through their own refugee settlement challenges. Yes, Islam’s prophet and many of his disciples were immigrants and refugees, and when 1.7 billion Muslims today recount their history, their starting point begins with this immigration story. In no small part, this immigration experience has been a very influential force in shaping Islamic theology in its formational period and beyond.

Living in a country built by immigrants and the children of immigrants—and as an immigrant myself—I resonate and connect with this very central story of immigration in my faith tradition in very special ways. Therefore, I believe, as we reflect over the beginning of this new Islamic year and the historical events behind the creation of the Islamic calendar, we, Muslims, in partnership with the rest of the world, have to renew our commitments to take the pressing issues of immigration and refugees in our society very seriously. This story of Hijra should remind us of our responsibilities vis-a-vis the more recent immigrants, especially the refugees in this country.

I am really proud that Duke’s Muslim community considers working with recent refugee communities as one of its top priorities. In partnership with various other Duke departments, student organizations and various refugee settlement agencies, Muslim Blue Devils have been trying to help the increasing number of immigrants arriving to our area as refugees regardless of their ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.

A lot more needs to be done, however, to respond to the complex challenges that these refugees face in their new homeland. The refugee settlement agencies that bring these people into our country do a fairly good job of helping them with their very basic and immediate survival needs. They find them housing and help them with a couple of months worth of rent money and food. Unfortunately, for these people who have been forced to leave their homelands and live through brutal refugee camp realities often for many years before finally coming to the U.S., their needs in starting a healthy, productive life go far beyond shelter and food. Their cultural, religious, social and psychological needs are no less important. Many of these people suffer from severe PTSD and not able to function fully. Many of them speak very little to no English, and they come here with very little to no understanding of how life works in America. Therefore, bringing them here and expecting them to stand on their own feet all by themselves in a very short period of time is not only unfair but also potentially very harmful and destructive.

We need to create much better ways of welcoming these new arrivers to our country. No single agency or faith community can do this alone. Are you looking for an opportunity where people put all their ethnic, racial, political, religious and many other differences aside and partner in doing God’s work in our area? Then check to see how you can join several noble initiatives on and beyond campus to make a modest difference in the lives of the many beautiful souls who became our neighbors recently and who would appreciate a warm no-strings-attached welcome and support from you. Hats off to those who are already doing that noble job beautifully.

Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Abdullah a message on Twitter @aantepli.

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