Justine Huxley writes about climate, covid and the mass movement of humans, asking, how do we hold on to our humanity and build resilience for what is to come.    

Jaminda’s family escaped mass violence in Myanmar.  Their houses were burned down and they fled in terror with their four children.  Along the way they met the fear of strangers, their indifference, hostility and outright cruelty.  Having swum across a dangerous river, they made it to Bangladesh, to the largest refugee camp in the world, just as Covid-19 was also arriving.  

There are 70 million displaced people in the world.  In a world beset by challenges, it is easy to turn away.   But the global impact of the pandemic, and the looming catastrophe of ecological and climate breakdown, of which the pandemic is merely a symptom, mean in coming years we will see many more refugees.  The massive economic contraction caused by months of global lockdown could push up to 500 million people into extreme poverty.  Many people whose livelihoods are gone, are already on the move.  

Alongside these horrifying statistics, are more numbers that are hard to allow in.  Many scientists are now predicting that due to rising temperatures, there will be no permanent sea ice left in the Arctic after 2023.  It may now be impossible to reverse this process. Melting ice means rising seas. Currently there are 600 million people living at sea level who will be forced to move to higher ground.    

How will we respond to this mass movement of humans? Will we let our hearts harden and focus on protecting what we see as ours?  Or will we manage to hold on to our humanity, and recognise them as mothers, fathers, children – people who once were just like us – before their lives were torn apart by trauma and unimaginable hardship?  Do we recognise that we too are not immune to displacement, like the inhabitants of the Welsh village of Fairbourne, among the first Britons to be displaced by climate?  Will we allow the illusion of our own safety to distance us from those suffering, or will we know our own interbeing?  

Covid has shown us how much we rely on migrant labour, within the NHS, agriculture and other key worker industries.  We have gained a fresh perspective on what we used to call ‘low skill work’ and have a new appreciation and gratitude for those in these roles.  But how long will this last?  Our communities are fractured and febrile.  Those on the margins feel increasingly alienated and dispossessed.  Many of us are retreating into echo chambers and losing the skills of constructive dialogue, becoming unwilling to risk raising difficult questions when we are all so easily triggered.  The recent upswelling of rage and pain around racial injustice shows us how deep the wounds of oppression and exclusion go, how raw those feelings can be.  

While the numbers of refugees rise, many of them Black people and people of colour, hate and extremism could rise too.  Will we build walls and blockades?  Prison camps and detention centres?  Will we justify the use of violence on the basis of dwindling resources?  These are not  pessimistic fantasies but very real dangers.  

At the heart of St Ethelburga’s work with refugees lie these questions:  How can we grow in empathy for the plight of others, even when our own sense of safety and security is under threat?  Can we recognise that behind every wave of displaced people lies profound injustice?  And, when times get tough, are we still prepared to live our values in action?    

In 2016, we went as a team to volunteer with aid workers on the Greek Island of Lesvos when thousands were coming across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.  It was a life changing experience.  Since then St Ethelburga’s has taken many other groups from diverse backgrounds to volunteer in camps around Europe. They work incredibly hard for a week, distributing food and clothes, seeing up close the dystopian conditions that are the daily reality for many people on the move. 

The volunteers’ practical contribution to the situation is a drop in the ocean of what is needed.  The impact on their own heart goes much deeper.   The experience is profoundly humanising. Witnessing this hardship face to face, the unconscious lines we draw between self and other, helper and helped, ‘us’ and ‘them’, dissolve, giving way to a visceral experience of our shared humanity.  The knowledge that for better or worse, we are all in this together.  It’s a bootcamp for the heart. 

In the ten days after our volunteers return, there is a window of time in which emotions are real and raw.  When they share their experiences with groups in their own neighbourhoods, they can move their audience to tears.  Their outer task is to galvanise others to act, to fundraise, gather more volunteers, or take many other forms of action.   The inner task is to enable us to feel for one another – and to channel that empathy into reaching out to refugees already in the UK, whose stories go unheard and who meet with judgement and exclusion at every turn.  In that reaching out, are the seeds of a mutual sense of belonging and the possibility of a shared contribution to our wider society.  

Climate breakdown and post-Covid economic collapse will increase migration on an unprecedented scale.  We cannot rely on our political leaders to prepare us for this.  We, as individuals, need to wake up to what is coming. We are the ones who can weave our neighbourhoods together with love, building much-needed resilience into our communities. We need to transform dehumanising narratives of displaced people. We need to welcome the contribution and creativity they bring to our communities and learn from their courage and resilience. They have endured so much to be here.

To know our shared humanity in this deeper way – this is the root of peace-making.  But to arrive in that place inside ourselves, this is not a pain free journey.  It takes a bootcamp for the heart. “

Justine Huxley, CEO, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation & Peace


Host our Refugee Allies training workshop in your community 

Read stories of resilience from refugees in our Inside Stories series 

Video about Act :Speak : Inspire – a bootcamp for the heart 

#CommunityAcrossDifferences – watch our 3 min video
#ValuesIntoAction – watch a 3 min video

Read more blogs about the refugee crisis and our response

For more information about St Ethelburga’s Refugee Allies programme contact 

Jaminda’s story


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