My Refugee Friends Are Not Terrorists (and Other Truths)

In an apartment complex in Austin, I leaned over a  metal railing and watched my children play with a wild crew from Myanmar, Iraq, Burundi, Somalia, Bhutan, Cuba, and Afghanistan. My friends were Burmese refugees from the Kachin state. The teenage daughters chatted with me on the porch while their mother prepared dinner. Their younger siblings played with my own little girls below.

Several years ago, some friends and I started a non-profit to help refugee artisans sell handcrafted goods. Over the years, we ate in refugees’ homes, listened to stories, watched our babies became sturdy toddlers and lanky elementary kids.

The adults were aware of the political divides, but the children never saw it. That day they played until it was too dark to see; they trooped inside for noodles with vegetables, slices of watermelon, and orange Fanta—there always seems to be orange Fanta in abundance.

***

I think of those children when I hear politicians say they don’t want more refugees. Suspicion that one terrorist in the Paris attacks was posing as a Syrian refugee has led to a swift and immediate backlash against Syrian refugees in the US. This week, the Attorney General of Texas is suing to keep a Syrian refugee family out of Dallas and it makes me sick to my stomach.

These extreme policy reactions promote a culture of fear about refugees and come from a lack of knowledge about the refugee experience. Here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Stop assuming refugees are terrorists: they are the victims, not the perpetrators, of terrorism and war.

Refugees flee because their lives are in danger. Whether they are from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, refugees are the enemies of the oppressive governments or groups that the US condemns and considers terrorists. Refugees are not our enemies, but our enemies’ enemies, which by any count should make them our friends. If we want to support the victims of the French attacks, let’s also support the victims of attacks in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, and the Sudan.

  1. Recognize that being resettled is a last resort for refugees.

I’ve never met a refugee who didn’t want to return to their home country if only they could. They are fiercely patriotic; they love the countries they left. Though most refugees I know left in order provide a life and opportunities for their children, they grieve that their children are more comfortable in the US.

Refugees make impossible choices–to leave land that had been in their family for centuries, or villages where all of their relatives live, or cities where they were respected doctors or engineers or teachers. They come from every walk of life to countries where their degrees and their experiences mean nothing.

None of them, not one single refugee I’ve ever met, would choose a hardscrabble life as a busboy or cleaning woman over a stable life in their home country.

  1. Understand the process for how a person becomes a refugee in the first place.

Most of the people flooding into Europe right now are migrants or asylum-seekers. They must prove to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they have been persecuted and  that to return to their country means they are in extreme danger. There are five grounds of persecution that the UNHCR recognizes: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group.

Refugees are thoroughly vetted. Most of my refugee friends know people who were not able to attain refugee status. If someone flees without the proper paperwork or if they have no way to prove that they are of a particular group, or if their story differs from others around them, asylum-seekers may be denied refugee status. Not enough refugees are resettled in the world; there are millions who have no option but to live in these supposedly temporary areas, or illegally in already strained countries like Jordan.

  1. Stop idealizing or vilifying them: refugees are just people.

The word “refugee” should be a description, not a definition. I’ve noticed some similarities among the diverse refugees I’ve known because they have overcome similar situations, not because they are alike as people.

Because they’ve suffered to the point of starvation and because they’ve left everything they’ve ever known, they value their families. They work hard, often taking on two or three jobs that most US citizens don’t want, like working in housekeeping at a hotel or in meat-processing plants. Above all, they want an end to the extreme stress of their lives—they want a place where they can live, raise their children, put down roots.

There the commonalities end: Refugees are as diverse as any other group in the world. Some of my friends are angry, some grateful, some bitter, some content, some tired. Most are bewildered and suffering from post-traumatic stress. They are not just “refugees,” they are people.

  1. Do more than click “like” when you see sad pictures—volunteer, get involved, make space in your life for the refugees who are here and those who are coming.

In the United States, almost every city has a thriving refugee population. The UNHCR works with resettlement agencies, many of which have branches in several different cities. Each of those agencies have volunteer opportunities. You can pick refugees up at the airport, help them furnish their apartment, take them to appointments, help them understand the complicated world of bureaucratic government paperwork, have them over to eat in your home, or go eat in theirs.

***

Refugees need what any person needs in a new place: friends, community, stability, roots. They need to be heard and listened to. They need someone to know they were here, that they survived, that they are loved.

My family and I cannot imagine a life without our refugee friends. This fall, some of our friends are moving into their first new home; they’ve been saving and working it for years. I cannot wait to see our children play in their new backyard. I hope there will be a big pan of my favorite noodles to share. I plan to bring enough orange Fanta for everyone.

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