The ill-treatment of migrants and refugees can become a pattern of behaviour that if ingrained will come back to “haunt” citizens, Fr Matthew d’Hereaux cautioned at the forum ‘Fear of the Other: Overcoming Prejudices’ —an open dialogue on migrants and refugees.
It was hosted by the Living Water Community Ministry for Migrants and Refugees last Friday, January 29 on Zoom and also had regional attendees.
Vocations Director at the Archdiocese Aspirancy House, Fr Matthew was on a panel with the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Trinidad and Tobago Rev Joy Mohan, and Manuel Romero, paralegal LWC. The moderator was Community Based Protection Officer, Living Water Community, Ministry for Migrants and Refugees, Shivonne DuBarry.
In introductory remarks, DuBarry said LWC worked with host countries trying to find solutions to issues that affect migrants and refugees. “One of the issues that keep coming up over and over again and affects the quality of the life those we work with is xenophobia. We wanted to meet with community members and to listen to what you have to say.”
To the question of why there should be concern with what foreigners are experiencing in this country with other issues of crime, unemployment, health etc., Fr Matthew stated, “it is not that we have better things to worry about; we have to worry about a culture that we are building.” He went on, “we could build a very, sterile, anti-human, anti-person culture that comes back to bite us long after migration is finished.”
He said persistent behaviours develop character—good behaviour, a virtuous character and bad, a character that is unsavoury. “Our bad behaviour towards others is building our character and that in turn creates a sort of behavioural pattern that will affect not only the other, but it affects us”. He named some bad behaviours: selfishness, constantly grabbing, being stingy and wretched. When these traits become ingrained, “what prevents that from affecting behaviours towards each other?” Fr d’Hereaux said.
He disclosed that while studying in Rome, he experienced prejudice because his physical appearance caused Italians judged him as North African, from Morocco. He narrated: “people would hold their wallets and their purses when they saw me. There came a point in my sojourn in Rome, I did not want to travel the train…it freezes you; you feel unwelcomed; you are fearful. There is a certain amount of social anxiety…” When he was studying in Ireland, he felt like a “human specimen” because people would peer out of their cars when the traffic light was red to look at him. Not being able to speak the language being “language-less” also created difficulties. “You can’t defend yourself against maltreatment in a store or grocery and people looking at you and holding their wallets or pocketbooks. You don’t have the language-skill to put people in their place”. For a time in Rome, he was language-less because he was still learning Italian, Fr Matthew said he understood what it was like for the Venezuelans.
As a Venezuelan in Trinidad, Romero said he was in a taxi when a driver remarked that he did not like Spanish people. In another example, he mentioned travelling from San Fernando to Port of Spain to work, and although first in line for a taxi was ignored by the taxi driver who called other passengers ahead of him. Romero said he can “feel the problem” of prejudice.
Discussing why the topic of discussion was important for people of faith and faith communities, Rev Mohan said, “people of faith believe all are created by a loving and just God and it not just rhetoric …all are equal in the sight of God; people of faith recognise unity in diversity, principles of fairness, equity, inclusivity.” These were some of the hallmarks of the Christian faith, Hinduism and Islam. She cited Deut 26:5-11, Lev 19:34 and Gal 1:3: 28 to show scripture supported harmonious living with the stranger. Based on the importance of the principles, Rev Mohan said people of faith are compelled to deepen their understanding of the devastating impacts of systemic racism by working with stakeholders to broaden sensitivity.
Fr Matthew also referred to Deuteronomy as well as Exodus 22: 20-21. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22;20)
He said the prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah were “raised up to protect the oppressed and the exploited.” In the Bible, the stranger, oppressed and exploited are to be treated with respect, love and dignity. Fr d’Hereaux added, “And then you go to the life of Jesus…Jesus has a special relationship with the outcasts.”
Fr d’Hereaux observed the disconnect between faith and life was one of the problems of religious communities. “Outside the church, we are not living the faith, we are not living the scriptures outside, it is just something for Sunday worship. That is the shameful thing.” He shared his disappointment with how Christians treated others with all that was said in the Bible. “If there was nothing in the Bible about the stranger the orphan, the widow, the poor the dispossessed and the outcast I will have no problem…I have a serious problem with ignoring the scriptures with respect to xenophobia and racism”.