Stories & Commentaries

From Other to Brother: Reaching Out to Refugees and to Our Muslim Neighbors

muslim neighbor

The past few weeks have been confusing for the refugee community, especially for those coming from the Middle East. It is unclear how the travel ban would be implemented; and many refugees suddenly felt linked to terrorism even though the data shows otherwise. Out of 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities: two abroad, and the plans of the third were barely credible.[1]

The most common concern about the resettlement program is that it could potentially be the path for ISIS or other terrorist organizations to infiltrate the U.S. But refugees who are selected for resettlement go through a painstaking, many-layered review.[2] As part of the review, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and national intelligence agencies independently check refugees’ biometric data against security databases. The entire process takes no less than 18 to 24 months, with high hurdles for security clearance.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. choses which refugees to admit. Many are here because their collaboration with U.S. forces in the Middle East has made them the target of violence.

Once here, refugees are connected with resettlement agencies and local volunteers (mostly from churches) who help them to integrate and become economically self-sufficient in the shortest time possible — a key tenet of the federal resettlement program. Federal funds support those who need assistance for the first seven or eight months; and in some areas the refugees are expected to cover their rent and utilities after the third month.

Security and Compassion: Mutually Exclusive?

Some people may wonder: Is it true that in choosing security, we need to sacrifice humanitarian concerns? Why can’t we have both? A free society that protects the lives of the weak, is a moral achievement, and one that better reflects God’s intent for the world — and one that better protects us all.

When I invited an Iraqi refugee to speak to a group of students, she showed the marks of torture she will carry for life with that group. In that classroom, as she painfully recounted her story about the brutality experienced at a market while choosing vegetables to feed her grandkids, ISIS was defeated. The woman’s story exposed terrorism for what it truly is: a cult of death. Period. If anyone in that group had harbored hopes of ever seeing a just society delivered by violence, my friend shattered them as vain illusions.

Based on the ancient reservoir of biblical wisdom, a strong society is one which prioritizes relationships rooted in love, over fear driven policies. Of course, any community needs just laws — boundaries to limit the evil of those who refuse to live generous lives — but such laws alone won’t produce either security or the flourishing of any society. Actually, fear takes a country inward, and falsely magnifies the sense of its vulnerability. Fear breeds a climate in which the temptation of turning nationalism into a new form of religion — a secular religion — becomes a reality. In the end, we all become weaker.

As people of faith, we must question narratives that gives us false dichotomies between security and humanitarian compassion. We can have both, for love casts away fear. 

Even more, we cannot outsource our Christian responsibility towards healing a fractured world. Jesus’ words, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), ring true today.  We need to have a robust conversation among us on what that peace might look like. Perhaps God wants to use this crisis to point us to biblical solutions that we didn’t know existed, and renew our relationships with Him and our neighbors.

After Whose Image?

After 20 years of ministry among Muslims, I have found that by looking at the world in terms of good and evil — us being the good and everyone else who is not like us the evil — makes us prone toward using any means to obliterate the other. 

A more biblical approach to life and humanity is to embrace ambiguity and understand that we all have potential for good and for harm, and that our calling is to the ministry of reconciliation that turns “bad” people into saved people, the “other” into “a brother.”

Choosing to seek for God in others, not just ourselves or those like us, is a critical move toward living peacefully. If others are not at peace, we may not have peace either. Our destinies are intertwined.

I recently attended the National Prayer Breakfast and I was moved by the words of Rabbi Sacks when he talked about the challenge we face today: “Can I see God’s image in someone who is not in my image?”

We need to unpack these questions theologically, socially, and morally: What does it means that monotheism and its “unity up there” created diversity down here? Do we see this as a good thing? Did God see this diversity as a good thing?

We need more faith, not less.
Something to Ponder
Crisis is our opportunity.

Have you wondered why God is allowing this massive move of people from countries that have been closed to us? Could it be that God’s hand is in this so that we could finish the task entrusted to us? Will we see the real state of our spiritual condition in the way we respond? May God guide us all closer to him and may we seek His will on earth as it is in heaven.

—  Gabriela Phillips is the Adventist Muslim Relations coordinator for the North American Division; please write to; or visit if you have questions.

[1] Kathleen Newland, “The U.S. Record Shows Refugees Are Not a Threat,” Migration Policy Institute (MPI): Oct. 2015, accessed on Feb. 28, 2017 (