My Refugee Friends Make Me Proud to Be an American

I’m tired. I’m so tired of having this conversation. When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this ridiculous image today, I admit, I blew up a little bit.CswRrhoW8AEo4Xy.jpg

It seems that no matter how much information those of us who love refugees get out, how many stories we tell, how much we say that refugees ARE what make America great, there are too many people yelling for refugees to not be allowed to be resettled in the United States because they might, just might, be a threat.

I don’t even want to get into the counterarguments–that white men kill substantially more people in the US every day than refugees ever have.

Three refugees in the history of the refugee resettlement program–three–have been linked to terrorism. 

Three.

Out of the 65.3 million refugees in the world, less than 1% are eligible for resettlement; of those thousands, three have been linked to terrorism. The track record is so high, I literally cannot understand why we are not welcoming refugees with open arms–they are, by far, the safest bet of the immigrant groups coming into the United States. (Which is a terrible argument, but there it is.)

But you know what? I don’t walk to have that argument. It’s not working. Fear is winning. And I’m tired of that more than anything else. In this political climate, it feels like facts mean nothing anymore.

You know what I want to tell you? About a time  a few weeks ago when my refugee friends made me proud to be an American for the first time in a long time.

***

My friend Caren and I met up with some Iraqi refugees, friends of friends, who had just moved to the United States. We lingered around the table for a while. As we talked about this political climate, I expected them to say that the political language used by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (who has led the charge to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas) or other politicians, has scared them or made them angry.

That day, they reframed the political narratives for me. (Two of them, Gandhi and Roxie, agreed to let me talk about our conversation as long as I gave them pseudonyms to protect their families still in Iraq: Gandhi chose his name because he is a man of peace and Roxie chose hers because she loves the show The Army Wives.)

Gandhi is a father of three children in his thirties who loves his wife. He is well-educated and well-read; the first thing he packed when leaving Iraq were books.

Roxie is a smart, devout Muslim woman in her twenties who can talk as easily about sociology as she can pop culture.

Though they didn’t know each other before we talked, their stories overlapped. Both were threatened by terrorists in Bagdad because of their association with the US military. Both had fled ISIS-controlled areas to be resettled in the United States.

But it is their very loyalty to the United States that made them the target for ISIS in the first place.

They are the victims of, not the perpetrators, of the anti-US violence. That’s why they’re refugees. That’s why they were able to be resettled here.

Gandhi secretly worked as a sub-contractor in the Green Zone. His friend would call and tell him, “It’s time to go to the market,” their agreed-upon code for the Green Zone. If he said out loud he was going to work with the US military, he would have been killed immediately.

Still, the terrorists found him. One day as he opened the door to his small sub-contracting company, he found a letter with his name on it, threatening his family. Within hours, his family was out of their house. They went to live with a relative who hid them for a few months before they got tourist visas to Bahrain. There, Gandhi found a job that supported them and they applied for refugee status.

Roxie’s story is similar. Her brother was the one secretly working to support the US military in the Green Zone; they hoped the terrorist threats would subside when UNHCR resettled him in Texas, but someone saw her brother’s posts on Facebook and word spread about their family in the neighborhood where they lived in Bagdad. Men in black masks menaced Roxie’s mother while she was outside; they followed Roxie’s brother while he was playing with friends.

For two years, Roxie was physically sick with anxiety for her family—every time she heard gun shots, she was confident it was someone she loved.

***

Resettling in Austin, Texas meant immediate relief for Roxie and Gandhi and their families from enormous stress. I asked Gandhi if it bothered him to start an entry-level job at Wal-Mart when he had been a manager and successful businessman in Iraq and Bahrain. He laughed and told me that he is sleeping through the night for the first time in years.

Roxie said the same thing; her face lit up when she told us how it feels to be able to leave the apartment just to meet friends or go out: “People here open the door for you and smile–this is a very kind thing.”

I apologized to both Roxie and Gandhi for the things they had heard about Muslims and refugees from political candidates in the recent weeks and months, especially the confusion of refugees with the terrorists they were fleeing. I told them that many of us do not agree with these views, that we support refugees, that we are friends with Muslims.

They were quick to reassure me—every interaction with Americans in their months here has been overwhelmingly positive. People come out of their way to let them know that politicians not speak for all US citizens. In fact, it is this ability to speak freely against the government that so impressed them. They reminded me that our ability to talk frankly about issues and disagree with candidates is a sign of our true freedom. We can live respectfully under civil law even when we disagree vehemently with each other.

Roxie and Gandhi spoke at length, with wonder, about how our ability to speak openly about our political differences in the US reveals our strengths.

***

I left our conversation feeling a patriotic burst of pride, swelling music and all, that surprised me.

We must speak out against people confusing refugees with the terrorists who are persecuting them. We must speak out against the xenophobic vilifying of all Muslims. As my friend Roxie told me, “We are good people. We just want peace. We want to make a future for ourselves. We want to build.” Our country has long been a place where refugees could dream with joy and gratitude about rebuilding lives that are rooted in peace.

This anti-refugee, anti-Muslim fear-mongering is beneath us. And frankly, it’s un-American.

And if you, like me, are more fearful of the fear-mongering politics than you are of the refugees, take hope: Gandhi and Roxie showed me that it is our ability to have these conversations, even when they are offensive and use vile stereotypes or ridiculous language, that already makes our country great. We can take it. We will continue to welcome and love and listen and be friends with people who are different from us.

There is still hope. My refugees friends taught me that.

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