An American flag hangs over a painting in their modest apartment. They’ve been in America only a few months now. She knows a bit of English, and I know zero Arabic or Kurdish, so we do our best to communicate with hand gestures and Google Translate. She’s taking an English class and shows me a notebook of the words she’s learning. She tells me the Kurdish word for flower. And then she tells me that I am a flower. She’s a wife, a mom, a woman just like me.
She shows me photos of her home in Syria, of the patio bench in the garden she’ll likely never get to sit on again. She shows me pictures of her family spread across the world, including family still in Aleppo. She tries to tell me something, but can’t think of the word, so she pulls out her phone to look it up. “Bombs,” she says.
She’s a wife, a mom, a woman just like me. Except not. Because here I sit, comfortable in my favorite coffee shop, cozy in a corner with a mocha, and I’ve never known the fear of bombs, never been forced to flee my home with its twinkling lights and burning candles. I board planes out of wanderlust, not out of fear for my life.
“It’s all in God’s hands,” she tells the translator after explaining her family’s story to the doctor.
We may not share the same faith, but we do share the same God. And even if we didn’t? Even if our religious creeds shared nothing in common? We are both human beings—cells and souls and sorrows and celebrations—and MY GOD that should be enough.
But apparently it’s not. Yesterday, Trump signed an executive order halting the refugee resettlement program for 120 days. For four months, zero new refugees from ANY country will be admitted to the United States. People—human beings like you and me—en route to the United States last night have been detained upon arrival in the U.S.
Syrian refugees have been banned indefinitely and likely other refugees from “Muslim” countries like Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and more, will be prohibited from resettling in the U.S.
“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people,” Trump said in a statement yesterday.
“We love America. We love your government,” a father of six once told me in October. His family is from Syria.
Only those who love deeply our people, he says. I wonder if President Trump has ever met a refugee from Syria or any other of the countries he has deemed “dangerous”?
It’s easy to demonize someone you’ve never met.
After assisting another family in enrolling their kids in school, the father invites us inside. “You are friend-family now,” he says in broken English.
My co-worker and I go inside; as we sit, we are offered coffee in ornately-decorated china. “Syria coffee,” the wife tells us.
Again, the father speaks broken English; again, my co-worker and I speak no Arabic, aside from “madraasa” (Arabic for “school”) that the sweetest little boy once excitedly taught me on the way to enroll in school. So we rely on hand gestures and Google Translate and the family points to things in the home. “Tawaala” he says pointing the table, and we repeat, “tawaala.” We say “table,” and they repeat, “table.” The daughter holds up a pink backpack. She wants to know the color. “Pink,” I say. And she repeats, “pink.” And we learn from one another.
They show us pictures of the pyramids in Egypt, where they fled from their home in Syria. They are a family, exploring new places, taking silly pictures, just like us.
Because will they ever be able to return home again?
And how many more now, just like these people, are in refugee camps, unable to legally work, to legally make a life for themselves, all because of the decisions of their government and other world powers? And now we close our borders to these people out of fear and ignorance, continue scrolling through Pinterest and reading our magazines and watching our reality shows and living our safe, beautiful lives, ignoring the indescribable suffering of people just like you and me who—by no fault of their own—live in a state of waiting in squalid, inhuman conditions.
Seven years ago, I participated in the March for Life. Yesterday, the march took place once again. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the walk while his colleague signed a ban that will most assuredly end human lives. And to add to the irony that is now the U.S. government, yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is nothing pro-life about this executive order, and it’s time that all of us within the pro-life movement open our eyes to the anti-life sentiment that has been perpetuated within JUST ONE WEEK of the new administration. We can’t advocate for lives within the womb while closing our eyes to the suffering of other lives. We must be willing to do both.
She—this mom, this wife, this woman like me—asks me if I am married. I tell her no, but one day I would like to be. “Marriage, kids, a lot of work,” she says. And we laugh.
He—this man who loves America—points at a Poodle whose head hangs out of a car window, and the children laugh. “I have a dog like that,” I tell him. He wants his family to meet my dog. “I like dogs, but wife, no,” he tells me.
He—this man who insists we come inside for Syria coffee—tells us, “You are friend-family now.”
There are more stories. Of the man from Afghanistan who worked for years for the U.S. military. Of the other man from Iraq who served our country likewise. Of the boy who is my age from the Congo, who has lived the majority of his life in a refugee camp, who was going to college before he came here two days ago; he wants to be an accountant. Of families who have witnessed other family members being killed by the Taliban. Of families who’ve had to flee on foot into the African bush to escape rebels who killed family.
They are like us.
Because most of us will never experience the horrors these people have lived through. Because most of us will never have to flee our homes to a foreign country, will never have to adjust to a culture hostile to us, will never have to learn a new language and a way of life.
We are safe. They are not. We have a home. They do not.
Fear is powerful and the issue of national security has been cited. Many of us aren’t aware of the vetting process refugees go through before arrival (likely President Trump also does not know this). I had no idea myself until I began working with refugees a year ago.
First, a few fun facts: the term “refugee” doesn’t apply to simply anyone who was born in another country and now lives in America. “Under United States law, a refugee is someone who:
- Is located outside of the United States
- Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States
- Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group
- Is not firmly resettled in another country
- Is admissible to the United States”
The vetting process is an in-depth and intense one: refugee data is collected and checked through all of our national security agencies, including the FBI, the State Department, and the Homeland Department of Security. Medical checkups, interviews, further background checks, and more all take place during the vetting process; it can take YEARS from when a person applies for resettlement to when they actually arrive in the U.S.
Once they arrive in the U.S., a nonprofit organization facilitates their resettlement and they are assigned caseworkers to walk them through the process. These organizations find the family their first home, first job, connect them to English classes, and assist in enrolling their children in school (HI THAT’S ME), among other necessary services.
According to a study by the Cato Institute (which I highly encourage you to read), “The chance that an American would be killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year.” You are more likely to be struck by lightning TWICE than to be killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee.
“But it’s still possible!” says the one guy who has been struck by lightning twice (and survived, twice).
So let’s look at the data from the Cato study—“Of the 3,252,493 refugees admitted from 1975 to the end of 2015, 20 were terrorists, which amounted to 0.00062 percent of the total. In other words, one terrorist entered as a refugee for every 162,625 refugees who were not terrorists. Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks. Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people and imposing a total human cost of $45 million, or $13.84 per refugee visa issued. The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s and were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place. Prior to that act, a hodgepodge of poorly managed post–World War II refugee and displaced persons statutes, presidential grants of parole, and ad hoc congressional legislation allowed Hungarian, Cuban, Vietnamese, and other refugee groups to settle in America. All of the murders committed by foreign-born refugees in terrorist attacks were committed by those admitted prior to the 1980 act.”
Refugees are not the enemy. They are not to be feared, not to be side-eyed with suspicion and shut out from our country.
They are PEOPLE.
Just like you and me.
“Syrian Dust” by Francesca Borri
This book chronicles the time spent in Aleppo by Italian journalist Francesca Borri. I read it this past summer, crying through this heartbreaking and eye-opening read at various London cafes and parks. Though I had been volunteering with the refugee community in Nashville prior to reading this, this book is what solidified my decision to commit myself further to welcoming these people to their new home in Nashville. I now work at Catholic Charities within their refugee resettlement division. Please, please, PLEASE read this book. Story is a powerful catalyst to a changed heart, and this one should be required reading for all of us.
“Because if I had ever understood anything about this war, I would not have been afraid to love, afraid to take a chance in life, if only I had really understood anything about Syria, about this life that might end this second, instead of huddling against the wall a thousand times in my dark dank corner while everything around me exploded, instead of cowering there hopelessly regretting everything I had never had the courage to say, now that it was too late, too late for everything, and how could I have lost what was most beautiful to me? Because this is the only thing left to say about a war, the only piece that I really should have written … You who are able to, you who are alive tomorrow, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you love enough? The only thing to write, from amid my rubble, if only I had understood anything: You who have everything, why are you so afraid?”
YOUR SUPPORT IS NEEDED.
It’s unclear to me how this new executive order will affect funding for the organizations that facilitate refugee resettlement. Regardless, these organizations need your help to provide necessary services to the families who have already arrived in the U.S. prior to this 120-day ban.
I work at Catholic Charities of TN and can attest firsthand to the vital work these hardworking employees provide to newly-arrived families in Nashville. Not all Catholic Charities locations provide refugee resettlement services, so if you are outside of Nashville, research to see if your local Catholic Charities has a refugee resettlement division. Donate. Volunteer. Get involved.
Catholic Charities of TN
DONATE – http://www.cctenn.org/donate.cfm
VOLUNTEER – http://www.cctenn.org/volunteer.cfm
I’ve volunteered with World Relief’s youth program in Nashville and mentor the coolest high school gal through it, so I can also say that this organization does great work, both in Nashville and all across America and the world. Unfortunately, World Relief's Nashville office was closed. Research to find your own local World Relief office.
There are other nonprofit organizations in the U.S. that provide refugee resettlement services, but these are the only two agencies I have worked with first-hand.