I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Matthew 25:35
Surat Al-Anfal: “Those who give asylum and aid are in very truth the believers: for them is the forgiveness of sins and a provision most generous.” (8:43)
The call to welcome the stranger is one shared by all major faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths. The Old and New Testament’s call to action are echoed in the Qur’an. Yet in a world where this call is being muted by one of protectionism under the guise of security some countries stand out in their acceptance and welcome to refugees.
In a very real sense, Niger cannot afford to support those coming across it’s borders. It is one of the world’s poorest nations. Limited health provision along with poor access to services including safe water and sanitation make life hard for many people in the country. Regular droughts, made worse by Climate Change, are resulting in poor harvests and greater food insecurity. However, Niger sits as an island of peace surrounded on every side by nations tormented by armed conflict and terrorism. And yet, rather than closing its borders, Nigeriens are welcoming refugees desperate to escape the horrors in their own countries.
In the last few months approximately 50,000 refugees from Nigeria have arrived in the southern region of Maradi. The refugees have been fleeing increasing attacks by Boko Haram in their homeland. Each person I spoke to had been forced to run with nothing and yet each told me of the welcome they had experienced from the local community in the village of Chadakori. Whilst it might be easy to suggest that this is bcause the refugees share a common ethnicity, language and faith, the all-inclusiveness of the welcome and openness to integration of the refugees is something I have rarely heard of previously.
It is not an easy journey for those entering the country. Initially, many made a temporary home immediately inside the border. However, due to safety and security concerns the government have chosen to establish so-called “Villages of opportunity” 20 kilometres inland from the border. I visited one called Chadakori, a village World Vision have worked in for many years.
Whilst discussing the needs with local government Administrator, Moctar, he stresses that the greatest need is for food. The rains have been poor again this year and the harvest is limited. There is not enough food for the community yet, even so, what they have they share with their new neighbours. The willingness to accept the refugees brings added benefits to the village. Because of the integration and the proximity of the refugee settlements to the village, services being established by aid organisations are able to serve both communities. World Vision is providing food and has installed a new water supply system that serves the needs of the refugees and the host community. The system draws water from a rehabilitated borehole and using solar power pump to a storage tank which, in turn, provides plentiful safe water for everyone.
Ideas such as this inclusive intervention help to reduce tension between the communities. Likewise, World Vision has plans support the local school to facilitate integration of school children. Whilst this not yet happening it is clearly on the minds of many of the children that I met. Their schooling has been interrupted as a result of the conflict. Yet their hope is to get back into school as soon as possible.
Bassiru Is 12 years old. He told me his favourite subject is literature but now he has no books to read. He came to Niger with his family but he doesn’t know where his friends are as everyone scattered when they came across the border. He hopes that some friends may be able to join him soon and they will be able to go to school together like before.
Likewise, his father would like to see life returns to normal. “Before coming I used to sell goats and donkeys but since we move I am just looking for any opportunity. I think in time I can do this [selling livestock] in Niger in the future” he says.
Back in Niamey, the capital, I met with the Minister of Health and also currently responsible for humanitarian issues. He stresses that Niger must not forget the development needs of the country in responding to the refugee crisis and that there is a need to work hard to keep the peace in the country but he reiterates the welcome the country shows to refugees. There are currently 400,000 refugees residing in the country. “ they are welcome“, he says, “and we will continue to accept them“.
The example shown by Niger is a challenge to us all, whether, compelled by faith or not, to welcome the stranger. At a time when it may seem like all hope is gone to those affected by conflict or other adversity, it is a reminder to recognise a shared humanity and to acknowledge the dignity that each of us carry and to provide hope and care.