The European refugee crisis is hardly a bolt from the blue–it’s long been in the making–but when streams of refugees started pouring over the border from Hungary into Austria in early September it caught me flat-footed.
In the summer of 2015, Austrian media had been drawing attention to overcrowding at Austria’s refugee reception center in Traiskirchen where asylum seekers are housed while their petitions are reviewed. With a capacity for about 500 persons, it was housing 3,600 by August. (Due to overcrowding the place has become a hiss and a byword, but it has a storied history going back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In fact, on my family history road trip earlier this year, I met a woman from Poland in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada who passed through the reception center in the early 1980s and still remembered enough German to leave us a nice note). And then there was the 71 corpses found on the roadside in a trafficker’s truck at the end of August.
Civil society had responded generously to the overcrowding at Traiskirchen, and individual wards participated in relief efforts, mostly by collecting donations. But for many the tragic deaths of 71 refugees was the first indication that this was not business as usual. And so for the last Sunday of August the local stake presidency had a letter read to the congregations. It said that the logistics precluded a coordinated, stake-wide response, but we were encouraged to help however we could, including by supporting other civil and religious relief agencies and efforts.
And then the dam broke: thousands of refugees that had been filling Budapest’s train station took off on foot to walk the 100 or so miles to Vienna. That forced the hand of Austria and Hungary and the powers that be decided it would be better to transport them to where they wanted to go (Germany for most of them), and soon up to 11,000 refugees a day were entering Austria. For a sense of scale, Austria has a population of 8.5 million. For something comparable to the US population, this would be the equivalent of welcoming 300,000 people a day to its shores. With perhaps 2,000 members of the Church attending sacrament meeting in the entire country on a given Sunday, this was clearly a situation where Austrian Mormons were not going to play a large role–just providing overnight accommodations, basic medical care and transportation to the German border sorely taxed available resources of the government and well-established civil society organizations.
Still, I have to admit I was a little disappointed that my Church was not participating in the efforts in a coordinated manner, especially given the urgent and sustained needs for all hands on deck; sure, many members were channeling Doctrine and Covenants 58:27, but where were all the yellow t-shirts? Was the Mormon response really going to be left to individual initiative?
Then a letter from the Europe Area Authority arrived, indicating that the First Presidency and Presiding Bishopric had made available additional humanitarian funds to assist refugees and immigrants within the Europe Area. It turned out to be EUR 4.6 million, some of which would go to NGOs (including Catholic relief organizations!) with the rest available upon application for Stakes and districts, which were encouraged to organize meaningful assistance projects.
And so it was with great appreciation that I listened to Elder Christofferson’s talk during the Sunday afternoon session about how one of the major reasons the Savior works through His Church is to
achieve needful things that cannot be accomplished by individuals or smaller groups. One clear example is dealing with poverty. It is true that as individuals and families we look after the physical needs of others, “imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants.” But together in the Church, the ability to care for the poor and needy is multiplied to meet the broader need, and hoped for self-reliance is made a reality for very many. Further, the Church, its Relief Societies, and its priesthood quorums have the capacity to provide relief to many people in many places affected by natural disasters, war, and persecution.
The challenges Europe faces in receiving, processing and caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees seem overwhelming–and certainly are at an individual level–even as they pale in light of the suffering experienced by millions who are compelled to leave their homes and families. But it’s a relief to know that the members of the Body of Christ are aware and responding–and not simply because it makes me feel better to be part of an organization that can act globally but also because it means at least temporary but tangible relief will be provided for many who will cross Europe’s borders in search of peace and prosperity, relief that is only possible through collective action. So let me join the Area Presidency in expressing gratitude to Church members worldwide whose generous donations have made these resources possible. May we be up to the task.