In my own experience, I have felt a little bit like a refugee here in Bolivia. Sure, I have a roof over my head and daily sustenance, but there have been times when I have felt very alone in this culture and mis-understood and lamentably, sometimes even side-lined. It is nothing close to what a true refugee is experiencing, I know, but I have often felt the red in my cheeks from an inside joke at my expense being shared by nationals, or simply ignored in a social situation. These experiences have made me soften to the plight of the "other". Whether it is a person of a different color, religion or country, I have much more empathy now than I ever did before.
Confession: Growing up in California, I used to laugh at people from the mid-west because they had a different accent or weren't as tan as me. I used to turn my nose up at people from other countries who weren't accustomed to wearing deodorant. I used to make fun of certain drivers because they fit a certain stereotype. I'm not proud of these things and I still need to repent of my arrogance and unfair bias on a daily basis.
Now that WE are the extranjeros or "strangers" in Bolivia with our own customs and traditions apart from the ones here, I can better relate to how "the other" is feeling.
Here are a few suggestions for those reading this post in how to deal with immigrants or extranjeros in your community.
1. Avow to not make fun of them in private and never publically.
2. Invite them for a meal in your home. You don't know how much this means to people who are far away from family and are trying to understand a new culture. Once, when we lived in Edmonton, we invited a new Egyptian couple who started coming to our church over to our house for dinner. A few months later, they reciprocated and during our conversation that evening he said, "Now we are family, because you have eaten in our home." This almost made me cry at the time because he was not saying this as a joke or to be polite. He was serious. I will never forget the impact his statement had on me.
3. Don't stare. My daughters often get looks not because they are weird, but because they are fair skinned and have light hair. This is because there is an elitism here that fair hair and fair skin are more desirable. I wish it wasn't the case, but even here, it exists. I just wish people wouldn't stare.
4. Have a friendly chat. You know how sometimes people standing in line or waiting for their latte sometimes share in friendly banter? It's not that hard to think of something to say about the weather or the time of day or the holiday weekend coming up.
5. If you are in the store and see someone having difficulty with understanding the language or the products, offer to give them a hand. I have sometimes been so befuddled at the meat counter here that a simple suggestion or offer to explain a cut of meat would have been wonderful! You could also just offer to return their cart back for them from the parking lot.
6. Make eye contact and say, "Hello!" or "Good Morning". Human contact is uplifting and can be that one spark in someone's day.
7. Dogs and children always open up easy conversations. So get out and take a walk with your pets and your kids!
I hope that little by little, by loving our neighbours of all colours and backgrounds, we can show the love of Christ and open new avenues for sharing the gospel. But first we need to LIVE the gospel. Christ is color-blind and we should be too.