Hangzhou, China. February 3, 2020. Eleven days after the government started to quarantine the city of Wuhan, about 500 miles away.
Fear had seeped into our city, settling over everything like a heavy blanket. The city was almost silent, much quieter than a city of 11 million should be. The streets were practically empty of cars and people; many public bus lines were shut down, and those that were running only came by once an hour. Almost everyone wore a facemask outside of their apartment. And the fact that people are able to avoid getting too close to anyone else is a testament in itself of the deserted feel of this once teeming metropolis.
It was Monday around lunch time that I received news that would disrupt our day and the next few weeks/months of our lives. I was working as an English teacher at a Chinese university, and as part of the pay, they provided an apartment on campus in which my family and I lived. It was still the winter holiday (like Christmas break), so there weren’t many people living on campus. By that time, only those who were currently living on campus could enter the campus gates; anyone who wasn’t already on campus could not return without written permission. If we left campus, we had to register where we had been upon re-entry. In order to enter any grocery stores, we had to have our temperature taken.
The message I received came from a coworker, who had heard through the grapevine, that our university campus would soon be on lock-down: no one would be allowed on or off campus starting the follow day until everything with the virus improved. After confirming this with university officials, our family had to make a quick decision. Already our city was feeling the stress of the virus. With the virus still too new, and with too many unknowns, including how long we would be on lock-down, I made the decision to leave the country. With everyone locked away in their homes and nobody wanting to see anyone else, it seemed we could provide little help and encouragement to our Chinese friends with our actual physical presence.
Decision made, my wife and I quickly looked online to see what countries nearby would still welcome us, as many were starting to deny entry to anyone who had come from China. If we returned to the States, not only would it be rather expensive (around $5000 for our family of 4), we would have to be under a 14-day quarantine. With limited options, I reached out to a friend in Thailand to see if he could find us housing since Thailand was still welcoming visitors from China. He quickly contacted the local church, and they agreed that we could stay for a few days in an apartment they had on the church property.
After receiving this good news and gaining special permission to leave our campus on the first day of the lock-down, we purchased tickets to Thailand the following day. My wife and I told our two boys, ages 11 and 13, to pack for warm weather and to be sure to take anything small that they would be sad to never see again (just in case- because you never know). That night we finished packing: clothes, technology, a few games, and the boys’ schoolbooks (because we homeschool- and school must go on no matter what!). At seven the next morning, less than 24 hours after first hearing the news, we left, taking with us two suitcases and four backpacks.
Right now, we have been in Thailand for a little over a week. We read the news daily about how the virus is progressing, wondering if we will ever get to go back to our home and friends in China. Being here has given me some time to think, and I began to feel like we were some form of refugees: fleeing from a country with a deadly virus, leaving our home with limited belongings, and not knowing exactly what we will do or how long we can stay.
The reality of the situation is that, unlike refugees, we have many options. I still have a job that continues to pay me (I will be teaching my university classes on an online platform). We could return to the USA with money from our savings if we so desired. Not only that, we have been received with open arms into a country and by a church, despite that fact that we have come from the current ‘danger zone’ of China and were practically unknown by the local Christians. On top of all that, I am writing this blog post while drinking a four-dollar cup of coffee in a fancy shopping mall in Bangkok while typing on my laptop.
Refugees do exist today around the world. People are literally fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night with no suitcase and no clear destination, other than the border of the next country. There is no guarantee that the family members with whom they began the journey will live long enough to reach the next destination. And upon arrival in a new place, they have no way to know if they will be accepted, allowed to stay, or forced to return.
While reading our story, if you felt grateful that my family has had a place to run to and people to welcome us, I want to encourage you to find ways to welcome real refugees. If you have never read the remarkable stories of true refugees, please do so. If your church has no ministry for refugees, please ask for this to change.
Reject the fear and lies people want to sell and actively love everyone. Remember, whatever you do to one of the least of people, you do to Jesus. And if Jesus called us to love our enemies, how can we not also show love to families who are desperately in need of a safe place to stay. For how can we claim to love God, whom we have not seen, without loving those around us who we can see?
My friends, thank you for sharing your story with us. I so appreciate your hearts and your willingness to share them with us despite your own difficult situation,