Refugees Welcome: A Most Uncommon Phrase

What drew us to one of Madrid’s busiest plazas was the attractive turn-of-the-century Palicio de Cibeles.

This gleaming-white Gothic revival beauty is among the city’s best-known landmarks and is home to the City Council. It’s an imposing structure which dominates the square, but a large banner rippling in the breeze made it even more noticeable: “Refugees Welcome.”

Given the controversy surrounding refugees and immigration these days, whether it’s the strain on resources, threat of terrorism, or simply a clash of cultures, this isn’t a phrase repeated very often. But luckily, for refugees coming to Europe,  and thanks to Madrid’s City Council and generous volunteers, they’re being welcomed with open arms.

According to Spanish newspaper El País, the City Council “made the move to express its solidarity with the increasing numbers of asylum seekers from countries such as Syria who are desperately trying to enter Western Europe.”

The article goes on to say: “The councillor in Madrid for Social Services and Employment, Marta Higueras, said on Monday that she was overwhelmed by the amount of calls and emails that City Hall had received from citizens who wanted to help out refugees.”

“It’s amazing to see how the floods of calls and emails are coming in to the council from citizens who want to offer rooms or apartments, doctors who are offering their assistance, or people who are simply asking how they can help,” –Marta Higueras

In the US, this was a hot-button issue in our last presidential election, and continues to be today. But I have one reminder for my American compatriots. If you live in North America and aren’t a Native American whose ancestors walked across the land bridge from Russia during the last Ice Age, you and all of your family are descendants of immigrants.

We’ve seen the plight of these refugees first hand, and we give major kudos to Madrid’s city government and all the generous Madrileños who are extending a badly needed helping hand.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

57 thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for speaking up === and for reminding us of our histories. The native Americans should despise ‘us’ as well as distrust, yet I remain humbled by their examples, especially when I am a guest in their country…

    1. I agree Lisa. Native Americans in the US have been treated horribly, but Meso-Americans in Central and South America had an even worse time of it. What imported disease didn’t accomplish, cruel treatment, forced labor and slavery did. But, I’m sure that when your friends there look at you they see the person and not your country of origin; which is really what how it should be. ~James

  2. Thank you for this post, it’s important stuff. And good to see a reminder of people remembering what it means to be a kind person, a kind society. I love the idea of some poor civil servant being overwhelmed by phone calls of kindness and humanity!

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a great image. If there was ever a good excuse for being overworked, this is it. It’s disheartening to see xenophobia becoming an acceptable attitude in much of the world, but places like Madrid are a shining example that not everyone has given in. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. The best part of this program in Madrid is that it shows that not everyone has lost their desire to help others. ~James

  3. Fortunately for us, here in the UK and in the States it’s almost impossible to imagine yourself a refugee. How lucky we are, and how lucky to be given the opportunity to ‘give back’ like the Madrilenos. Belated Easter love coming your way, but it’s never too late for love, is it? 🙂 🙂

    1. As you know well Jo, one of the rewards of travel is having the opportunity to see the day-to-day lives of people in other countries. And in many cases their lives are a reminder of exactly how lucky we are. Sitting down in our comfortable homes for a holiday meal with our loved ones is the perfect time to reflect on our luck. Happy Easter to you as well. ~James

  4. It’s easy to get disheartened, depressed and anxious reading the news from the US and around the world and seeing the hidden underbelly of racism and religious intolerance being expressed quite openly in the last several months. Your post reminds me again, that there are a lot more kind people ready to help those in need than there are people who hate. Kudos to the people of Madrid and thanks for an uplifting start to my day! Anita

    1. Anita, this global groundswell of xenophobia and intolerance is indeed depressing. And after our recent election in the US, I feel that we’ve stepped back three decades. I thought that it was interesting that the Madrid city government would choose to have the banner message in English. I’m not sure that anti-refugee countries are listening, but even one of these families reaching a safe haven is a good thing. ~James

    1. Thanks Peggy. I’ve done a bit more reading on the effort in Madrid, and apparently, there’s an effort to include other cities (like Barcelona) in the program. With all the negative news coming out of Europe on the refugee crisis, it’s heartening to see the work they’re doing in Spain. ~James

    1. Chris, the last time we were in Europe we were in the Balkans and there was nothing but sad news of closing borders and refugees stranded with nowhere to go. So the message on this banner was a pleasant surprise, and an indication that some progress is being made. ~James

  5. The way Madrileños accept refugees and help them in the best way they can is very commendable amid the increasing support for ultranationalism in many parts of the world. This Wednesday, the people of Jakarta will go to polling stations and decide whether xenophobia will become an acceptable norm in the coming years or inclusiveness is the way to go forward.

    1. Bama, this global trend of ultranationalism is disturbing and I still can’t understand how it’s gained so much popularity so quickly. I was incredibly surprised, as was everyone that I know, about the results of our US presidential election. I’m afraid that many in the world see America’s newfound isolationism as a legitimate motivation to jump on the bandwagon. I hope this doesn’t happen in Indonesia. ~James

    1. I thought that was interesting as well Laura. I suspect they’re trying to send the message to a few big, English speaking countries … like the US. I don’t know how much reach this post will have, but anything helps. ~James

  6. A story like this warms my heart! There is still good in this world. 🙂 So awesome of Madrid – what a great example and message to visitors and locals alike – and its helpful inhabitants.

    1. Liesbet, I’m sure that this sort of program has a solidifying effect on any community. And I’m sure that it makes all Madrileños proud. I know that it certainly would for me. ~James

  7. I love how you put this! If you live in North America and aren’t a Native American whose ancestors walked across the land bridge from Russia during the last Ice Age, you and all of your family are descendants of immigrants. People in North America seem to forget this. Spain has been a place for people to come to for centuries which is what makes it such a rich, diverse and open culture.

    1. Thanks Darlene. I guess that being a scientist has taught me to look at things logically, and there’s no denying the scientific evidence. And when it comes to Spain, there’s a reason that every group of conquerors, whether Roman, Visigoth, or Moor, came and stayed until someone threw them out. It’s a very comfortable place. I hope that the refugees find it so. ~James

  8. It is really nice to see women and children in your photos!! I was reading some other posts couple of months ago from a blogger from Italy immigration office; she was shocked as there were only males applying for residence, and wondering where the women were, since as a family they all need to apply at the same time..

    1. I can’t speak for Italy Christie, but we saw lots of refugees in Serbia, and yes, there were a number of groups of 20-something males who were traveling on their own. But there were just as many, if not more families. In fact, most families included not only parents but at least a couple of kids, and frequently, a grandparent or two. Leaving your motherland and all your possessions behind must be an horrific decision, and on the road a big support network has to help. ~James

  9. We should be seizing this opportunity to not only welcome and shelter these people but we should be helping them learn about governance so that if and when peace arrives they will be better able to nourish their own countries of origin and be instrumental in the rebuilding of their societies.

    1. Leslie, what you say is absolutely true, but unfortunately, I suspect that for most of these refugees, emigration is probably a one-way street. Building a life in their new home must be a gargantuan challenge, and I can imagine that when they’re successful, they would be more likely to get family members out of harm’s in their old home and bring them to a safer place. But who’s to know. Sadly, until the war stops, things will only go on as they are now. ~James

  10. Your story today moves me to tears. And I feel powerless as to how to be of support or to help in any way. Yesterday’s New York Times published this heart breaking article: “As atrocities mount in Syria, justice seems out of reach ( It was so difficult to read that article and to think that we are living in the modern times with these atrocities still being committed. Thanks for letting us know that one country at least has open arms and welcoming hearts.

    1. Rusha, the Madrileños and Spaniards in other cities there are certainly an inspiration to us all. After our experience in Serbia, we were surprised and pleased to see this banner and learn about the program in Madrid. As for getting involved, I just recently learned that there’s an organization in Lexington and Louisville called “Kentucky Refugee Ministries” which helps refugees make KY their home. I know that you and Bert are active in Habitat, so you might contact someone there who knows if a similar organization is active in your area. ~James

  11. Thanks for your post, James and Terri. Too many people have forgotten that we are all immigrants in this country. And I might add, our polices have played a part in creating the refugee problem. I did see churches in Boston with the refugee welcome signs. And I appreciate the communities across America who have chosen to become sanctuary cities. –Curt

    1. Curt, luckily our president doesn’t speak for everyone when it comes to how refugees should be treated. Sadly, I think there’s a showdown coming between the federal government and these sanctuary cities. And hopefully, when the next election cycle rolls around people will remember. ~James

      1. I read an interesting book recently, James, called American Hysteria which includes the McCarthy Era, the beginning of the anti-Islam campaign and other similar events in American History. Apparently we have to go through these irrational witch hunts far too often. –Curt

    1. Joanne, as in America, in many countries the government has one opinion of refugees and the citizens have another. Luckily, in Spain they both seem to agree and that’s good news indeed. ~James

  12. A wonderful message on one of my very favorite buildings in Madrid. I passed by Cibeles (then known more as Correos, and the location of the post office) every single day on my walk from my apartment to my university classes years ago, and I still love that grande dame!

    1. Lexie, I love it when government agencies plan buildings that have some character, and this one is beautiful. We didn’t get a chance to see them, but I understand that Madrid has a number of very modern buildings that are cool. Madrid must have been a fun place for university. ~James

      1. It was such a great experience! Thirty years later, our daughter studied there and coincidentally lived about 2-3 blocks from my old apartment! It was great fun to relive my time there. Your trip looked and sounded wonderful!

  13. BRAVO!! Standing and cheering for this post and the city of Madrid! I often point out to refugee naysayers your point about Native Americans and First Nations peoples. I did not know about Madrid’s welcoming ways. What a delight to read about it here.

    1. Sue, I know that you and Dave have been intimately involved in helping a Syrian family so seeing this must make you feel really good. You guys are putting your money where your mouth is and we all applaud you for it. ~James

    1. Susan, I understand that terrorism is an international reality, and it’s the responsibility of our government to do their best to protect us. But, painting every foreigner with the same broad brush is not the answer. ~James

    1. Gilda, it was a very pleasant surprise seeing this sign. If you only read the news, you’d think that no one has the least desire to help the refugees, but obviously, there are pockets of folks out there that still care and that do more than just talk. ~James

  14. Very interesting.
    The Canadian govn’t accept 30,000 Syrian refugees last year…a blend of church sponsorship, fast tracking some applicants, etc.

    1. Thanks for the comment Leen and for dropping by the blog. It seems that most of the news we hear about the refugees is negative and depressing. It’s nice to be able to report something positive. And I agree, Bravo Spain! ~James

      1. Exactly. Especially here in Lebanon. We hear loads of negative comments and complaints about refugees, but I’ve taught in a refugee camp last year and got more in touch with refugee kids, and they do not do not do not deserve this..
        You can check my newest post about how refugees are treated around here 🙂

  15. Hello dear James , i´m Romanian and I live in Madrid for about 5 years now ,and a total of 12 years in Spain . My feeling about this message it doesn´t really get to my heart ,because the Spanish citizens towards the refugees is that they want them here or anywhere in Spain , and it doesnt matter from what country you are coming from , you are always going to be an outsider and be trated like wise .The thing is when the big wave from Siria arrived ,every country from the UE should´ve taken in around 10.000 refugees . Spain only took 1000 . So just 1% . I think is not really fair and plus my feeling living here is that, i will always be an imigrant. I have the feeling that if you are a strong and succesful person , they will always look at you and be intimidated. And they will feel a bit inferior and jelous . I don´t say that they are all like that , but the majority are . Any ways , things are not always as the seem. Have a nice day 🙂 !

    1. Thanks for the comment Gabrielle and for dropping by the blog. I appreciate your point of view and perspective on this issue. Your’s is a voice that needs to be heard. I hadn’t read the actual statistics on how many refugees Spain had accepted, so I can’t make a judgement. But what I can say is that it can only be a positive thing for the government to raise awareness by advertising that refugees are welcome in Spain. As you know, this isn’t the case in all EU countries.

      And on being treated as an outsider, I can relate. My wife and I lived a number of years overseas and were frequently confronted with being treated differently. However, in my experience, how we were treated had more to do with the personality of the individual than it did with the overall culture of the country. There will always be individuals that treat strangers badly, as there will always be people who recognize that being a foreigner isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just basic human nature I guess, and hopefully, as more and more immigrants are allowed to become a part of the community, things will get better for everyone. All the best to you and thanks again for your personal perspective. ~James

      1. Thank you for the cheering up .hopefully Spain will help more people and the one that are here be treated better, I don’t make such a big problem over it , I’ve got used to it , is only now when I look at from a different angle that I realize the difference. Have a nice day and thank you for the replay !

  16. we will be traveling through Spain in March, starting in Madrid, which is why I am reading this almost year old post. It will be interesting to see if the sign is still on the cathedral, 11 months later. I will definitely look!

    1. Shelley, I’ll be interested as well. We don’t hear much about the refugees any more, but the crisis still exists. Madrid will still be cool in March, but tourists won’t be much of an issue. Enjoy your trip. ~James

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