Who We Talk about When We Talk about Refugees

The Republican debate has me very afraid. You may not know anyone who is saying awful things about (or to) refugees or Muslims, and you might not have refugees on your speed dial, so this might not feel like a pressing issue to you. But the rhetoric and campaign ads are revving up, not dying down. Though there has been some serious pushback, politicians from Abbott to Trump are getting the message that it is politically savvy to come down hard  against refugees, that if they appear weak, they might lose political points, or come across as not valuing the public’s opinion on this “issue.”

This is not an issue, these are people. The way we talk about refugees affects real people. Immeasurably. Irrevocably.

Frankly, I’m much more concerned about the safety of my refugee and Muslim friends in a political climate increasingly marked by hatred, racism, and xenophobia than I am the remote chance that some terrorist has decided it is worth enduring the extensive vetting process to come to the US as a refugee.

(They won’t do that, by the way; it’s too difficult and risky and there are other, much easier avenues to come to the US. The Paris terrorists were all Belgian and French citizens. But no one gives us a play-by-play update of the numbers of Europeans coming to Texas without a tourist visa because they don’t need one. Each Syrian refugee coming to Texas, however, has been counted and described in detail by the media.)

I’m not a journalist. I’m not taking pictures of asylum-seekers in Greece or telling you the details of a family’s harrowing flight away from ISIS. I’d like to be, in some ways, but that’s not my story.

I’ve spent years studying issues of representation; I know there are real problems that arise when we represent people poorly. I’ve also spent years of my life with refugees.

The following details were gained through  countless interactions and carefully built relationships. Day in and day out, I’ve known people, met with them, loved their babies, grieved with them. These stories aren’t sensationalism or poverty tourism, these are just our lives together. They aren’t only refugees, they are friends of mine. My life is richer for knowing them.

Refugees have reason to fear, whether it be hate crimes or hateful speech; we have nothing to fear from them.

***

When we talk about refugees, we’re talking about my friend Nen.* He and his wife were married for almost twenty years when his daughter was born, on the same day as my middle daughter. His daughter is the light of Nen’s life–she is named after him and looks like him. Her big eyes are serious, but even as a baby, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was the center of the world for her father and mother. She still is.

Nen calls me “My sister!” every time he sees me. While I was starting an economic development project with Burmese refugees, Nen lived in an apartment below some of the artisans. Every time he was home, he’d yell, “My sister! Hello!” and I would stop by to chat.

He wasn’t always home. He worked two jobs, one as a busboy at a soup and salad restaurant, another in housekeeping at a hotel. Both jobs were beneath someone as highly educated as Nen. They were all he could find; he became a refugee and his degrees and life experience meant very little in his new country.

And he would work any job to give a good life to his little girl.

He became a refugee because he was a translator for the US army in Iraq. He believed in the causes they were fighting for; he lost family members because of his translation work. He had to scrabble to be resettled here, even though he gave up more in service to the US than most US citizens ever will.

He’s a hardworking, charismatic man who loves the US with all his heart and has lost everything to violent extremism in his country.

He lived in fear for years to serve the US army as a translator. He doesn’t deserve to face more fear in the US now.

***

We’re talking about my friend Leila.* She was also a translator for the US army in Iraq and she is one of the sharpest women I know. When we first met, her impeccable English was underscored by an easy laugh and smile crinkles around her piercing green eyes.

The skills that got her good jobs in Iraq–namely, speaking English–didn’t help her in the US. She struggled to accept basic housekeeping jobs; like Nen, these were significantly below her education and talent levels, but she took them anyway to feed her family.

One night, on the way home from the grocery store, she was followed by some white men. They threw rocks and told her to go back to where she came from. It frightened her; she struggled with PTSD because of the horrific experiences that made her leave Iraq. After that incident, she barely left the house for months.

saw my gracious, easy, laughing friend disappear into a shell of fear.

I  think of Leila when I write against the culture of fear surrounding refugees. I feel sick at the fear that she felt then; I haven’t seen her in a couple of years. I hope things have not gotten worse for her, but I’ve seen enough friends paralyzed by PTSD  to bet they have.

And honestly, with all of the hate crimes I’ve heard of lately, she probably has reason to be afraid.

***

We’re talking about my friend Harun,* his wife Maryam,* and their beautiful daughter. She is also the light of their lives. They are Christians who fled persecution in Iraq to live for years in Jordan before making it to Austin. Because they are Christians, they don’t always fit in with the Iraqi Muslims, but US Christians are not always kind to them either. They’ve been on the receiving end of their own awful comments; they live a lonely life in between groups.

Harun makes and sells crosses. He told me once it was to thank God for helping his family escape persecution in Iraq; he worked as a carpenter for years and feels a special affinity to Jesus for that reason. He and Maryam have provided as well as they could for their daughter through a variety of jobs; there were other children who died years ago in Iraq, so giving their only-living daughter a good life is of the utmost importance to them.

Their daughter will be famous some day; I’m confident of it. I ran into Maryam and her daughter at the mall on Black Friday, where they were doing some mother-daughter Christmas shopping. Their daughter, who graduated from Ann Richards High School, is studying journalism at a prestigious university nearby. She wants to highlight the issues refugees face every day in her future news articles.

The look of wonder on Maryam’s face when her fierce, bright daughter spoke of her dreams was something I’ll never forget. I have seen this girl grow from a small child to an intelligent young woman. I choked up a bit myself; I want my daughters to grow up to be like her.

If I were in their situation, I would hope I could sacrifice as much as they have to give my daughters hope and a future.

***

My friends are who we talk about when we talk about refugees. There are refugees who are coming from Syria (if they are able to come), but there are others who are already here, from Somalia and Burundi and Burma and Bangladesh and Cuba and Iraq and Afghanistan and other places around the world. These people from a variety of backgrounds are affected by our language and by these policy debates.

They have heard in the last few weeks that they are offensive or controversial to the country they love, the country many of them fought fiercely for in Iraq.

They are US citizens and Texans, but what little sense of safety they’ve attained since being resettled is threatened by the angry political rhetoric.

Leila’s and Nen’s families gave everything up because they helped the US army; Harun and Maryam are Christians who are still often on the receiving end of racism and hatred just because their accents and names are different than some people around them.

But to be clear, Muslim or Christian, no refugee deserves the level of vitriol they are receiving right now in these policy debates.

I worry about the hate crimes that are sure to increase. The posturing at the Republican presidential debate will only exacerbate the problem. Those of us who know refugees feel desperate to tell their stories well; we must speak with more nuance and compassion. I hope we can do better, for the sake of my friends.

***

* (Because I’m talking about my friends without their permission, I changed their names in this post.)

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