On Friday, as the Attorney General’s office in the state of Texas was making a decision about whether to withdraw the restraining order against Syrian refugees, I was eating lunch with friends deeply involved in the refugee community. All of us had started non-profits and businesses in Austin working with refugees. While we ate, we chatted about mutual friends: One with a new job, another in the hospital, another buying a new house. And we talked about how the fight over resettling refugees in our state affects these dear friends who are both refugees and Texans.
I know players in every aspect of this drama. I am friends with people who work in politics in Texas, who were in the room as decisions were being made about the state’s stance on refugee resettlement; I know the women and men who were interviewed on our local NPR station about refugees. Refugees are on speed dial on my phone and regularly eat in my home; their kids are good friends with my daughters.
I think I can speak for my friends who have worked with refugees and say we feel sucker-punched at the language being used in our state, much less the nation. The fact that there could even be two sides, those for and those against refugee resettlement, is almost unimaginable to me. In almost ten years of working with refugees, I’ve met evangelical, fundamentalist, mainline, conservative, and liberal Christians. I’ve worked with phenomenal people from the local synagogue who partnered with leaders at the local mosques and temples. There were people whose religious affiliations I would consider cult-like; there were others who were very clear about being atheist or agnostic. Everyone I’ve ever met working with refugees has been united in one thing: we support the refugees themselves.
People with refugee status have always fit into a clear-cut category; they already proved through a rigorous vetting process that they were persecuted and had to flee. We just provided spaces where they could learn how to navigate a new culture, or reconnect with their community, or make enough money to live, or just breathe for a bit. No one from any walk of life I’ve ever met in Austin has ever debated the “refugee situation” until the last few weeks. And it’s hurting me to hear the debates.
This doesn’t affect my life the way it does my friends’ lives. Refugees have stopped coming to English classes and community centers and well-earned jobs; the rumors circulating in the community are rampant. Before long, some of them will move from Austin overnight. Refugees are better at ghosting than anyone I know; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a friend’s house only to realize they moved, changed their number, skipped town overnight.
Ghosting is the only reasonable response. Once you’ve had to flee for your life because of violence in your home country, you get very, very good at running. And when everyone in your family and your small community has PTSD because you saw your father’s leg blown off by a land mine and your neighbor’s baby was tossed in the bushes for crying while she crossed the border, you all counsel each other to flee. You have to. What other choices do you have when violent language becomes mainstream?
People I love are hearing in the news and through friends that they are under threat because they wear the title “refugee.” PTSD and chronic fear has twisted their lives in unspeakable ways; that fear is back with a vengeance. This week I’m going to be posting stories on this blog of the refugees I know and why this language contributes to a paralyzing culture of fear for them. I want you to hear the stories I’ve listened to over the years and that make me so passionate about this subject.
Every day that violent anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric is part of our political discourse, my refugee friends are affected in lasting and damaging ways. We can’t wait another minute.
It’s not just refugees who are impacted:
Ten minutes away from my girls’ elementary school, a mosque their fellow students attend was burned by an anti-Muslim arsonist. My girls heard about it at school. They asked me why anyone would want to hurt their friends. I had no answer for them.
And in Austin on Sunday, at the Kerbey Lane where I used to eat all the time in graduate school, a man told two Muslim women students to “go back to Saudi Arabia.” The manager seated the man away from the women (a move the management is now saying on their Facebook page was wrong–they should have thrown him out). The women asked the people around them in the restaurant if anyone cared that they were just the victims of blatant racism.
A man shouted back, “Nobody!”
I’m calling Team Reasonable to stand up and fight the xenophobia. Don’t let the anti-Muslim or anti-refugee language be connected to any political group. Don’t let anyone tell you there are sides in this debate; I know and love Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all of whom are shocked and dismayed at this level of vitriol. There are no sides when it comes to xenophobia or racism.
We can’t let this language take over our political discourse. Let’s agree to respectfully disagree on fiscal matters, on how to interpret the Constitution, on whether governance should happen at the state or federal level, but not this: The anti-Muslim, anti-refugee language needs to be overwhelmingly denounced by all reasonable people immediately.
I’m sick that Donald Trump is spewing hate about Muslims to thunderous applause, that a man shouted “Nobody!” in a restaurant when two Muslim women asked if anyone cared about them, that my refugee friends have heard, after a lifetime of being told they were worth killing because they were Kurds or Shi’a or Christians or Karenni or Kachin, that they have a reason to live in fear again in a land they were told was full of hope and goodwill.
Many people have asked me what to do to help refugees and this is my advice: If you know someone who is using hateful speech about Muslims or refugees, talk to them. Use your best arguments, your finest words, your most effective appeals. Write it on Facebook or Twitter; talk about it in the school pick-up lines, at church, at synagogue, at the club on Saturday nights. Talk and share and listen and help the people around you to speak in nuanced ways about complicated issues without relying on xenophobia or racism. This isn’t just talk; this is causing mental, emotional, and physical damage and we can’t stand by and let it continue.
On behalf of the refugees I love in the capital of Texas, or the Muslims whose mosque was set on fire near my daughters’ school in Austin, or the fierce women who called out racism in a restaurant a block away from UT and were met with more hatred, I’m begging you: stand up and say something, Team Reasonable. We need you now.