Calling Team Reasonable: Refugees Need You

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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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Representations of Refugees in the Media

I’ve been following the representation of refugees in the media and I’m updating this page with good articles as I come across them.

Syrian Refugees to Arrive in Texas

Ikea Refugee Shelters

Texas without Syrian Refugees

The Process for Interviewing, Vetting, and Resettling Syrian Refugees

White Americans are the Biggest Terror Threat in the US

States Don’t Have the Right to Deny Syrian Refugees

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.

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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.

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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.