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Praying with refugees in England: reborn through generosity
01 December 2014

A young woman sits attentively in her class in Nairobi, Kenya (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service)
Gemma had assimilated her story of abuse, but the unbidden generosity of strangers had turned her worldview upside down.
London, 1 December 2014 – Just before Christmas a couple of years ago, I visited a project in East London that supports young unaccompanied migrants. The young people I met that day had been through a great deal. Some had made seemingly impossible journeys, alone, by sea, air and road. Many had lost touch with their families. Some had experienced homelessness and violence, at home, on route and in the UK. Others had been detained and arrested.

One young teenager particularly made a mark on me. I shall call her Gemma*.

Gemma coolly and calmly told me of the abuse she had experienced in Africa. She told me about her journey to the UK; the exploitative relationship she had found herself relying on in London; what happened when she went to the local council to ask for help and was told she was now fractionally too old; the uncertainty of a future without legal immigration status; malnourishment, poverty, loneliness, homelessness and fear.

She told it all in a matter of fact way. It was difficult to listen to. She had obviously found a narrative for telling this story over the years. It was a part of her background and identity. Then however, she turned to the present and began to tell me how her project worker had persuaded a small charity on the other side of London to support her education. It was a Jewish charity, with no obvious connection to the project or to Gemma. They had never met.

The charity had been moved to donate clothes and shoes when they heard about how tough things had been – all this so that she could attend job and university interviews well-dressed. In fact, after attending the interview in her new clothes, Gemma won a place at university, and the same charity then clubbed together to raise the money for her fees – no mean feat for someone deemed an 'overseas student', despite the many years she had spent in the UK.

Gemma told the story of her years of pain, hunger and neglect fluently, without emotion. She blurted out this story of support between uncontrollable bouts of sobbing, tears and bafflement.

"This is the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me!" she exclaimed.

Gemma had assimilated her story of abuse, but the unbidden generosity of strangers had turned her worldview upside down. This gratuitous, excessive, extraordinary gift – by people who shared neither her religion, nationality nor skin colour – is the thing that stood in defiance of the story she told herself about her worth, her potential, her lovability and her place in the world.

Gratuitous gifts can remake the bonds of kinship – transforming, healing, world-altering. I cannot recall the episode without feeling overcome by her sense of emotion, wonder and gratitude. I had no doubt that I was witnessing the incarnation.

*Name changed to protect identity


Your Reflections
In even the bleakest and most desolate of spaces, God can enter and transform. Where have I experienced this wonder at a gratuitous act of generosity? In my own life? In the life of another? What does that gift say about what God is like? Have I ever been the one doing the giving? What did it feel like to cooperate with God?

Sarah Teather
Member of British Parliament for Brent Central
Founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Guantanamo Bay
Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees