How many of you have actually known refugees, personally? How many of you have sat beside them at a table and listened to their stories? Raise your hands.
Okay, if you raised your hand, you’re free to go. Once you’ve sat across the table from a refugee and looked into their faces as they’ve told you about genocide, civil war, human trafficking, and the deaths of loved ones, you understand. But if you’ve only known refugees through news stories and political fear-mongering, keep reading.
Let’s begin with the difference between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants choose to leave their countries. They fill out paperwork and often wait years before finally getting their chance to come to the United States. Unless we’re talking this continent, even illegal immigrants fill out lots of paperwork and save up for a long time. They just usually fill out paperwork for tourist or student visas and then overstay their deadlines.
When they do come, the Financial Times shows that immigrants–both legal and illegal–benefit the American economy in a multitude of ways–from opening businesses to keeping prices low for produce, ethnic foods, and services, from dry cleaning to your hotel bills. Immigrants are doing what all of us do when we move to another city or state for a better job opportunity. Except they’re doing it on an international scale and tend to be more ambitious and more determined–and more willing to take low wages.
Refugees are a very different group of people. They didn’t choose to come here. Choice doesn’t even factor into their situation. Refugees were forced to leave their homes and countries. Maybe their home was burned down in a Civil War and then every town they passed through told them to keep on going–putting out their “Not Welcome” signs. Maybe their political party fell out of favor, and they had to escape their own country through something that resembled the Underground Railroad–or else be killed. Maybe their own government marched them out of their homes, out of their region, and out of their own country. I’ve met people who survived horrors like these and worse.
Refugees have experienced the deaths of friends and loved ones, injury, illness, and constant danger. They are incredibly vulnerable to human traffickers as well as other crimes, from pick-pocketing to rape. If a refugee has made it this far, they have a talent. Something that you and I probably lack.
They are determined to survive anything. And they’ve proven that they will.
They are the very last thing from lazy.
They are also deeply wounded and often traumatized human beings.
I met my first refugee when I was 19 years old. He had survived the Chinese takeover of Tibet but fled. Once a yak herder with his family in the mountains of Tibet, he wrote essays about their encampments as they traveled in search of better grazing for their yaks. He wouldn’t tell me what drove him out of Tibet or how he escaped a region so tightly controlled by the Chinese. At 19, I thought he was being coy.
At 34, I can at least recognize that something so horrible happened he could not bear to speak of it. It likely traumatized him, and to put words to it and say them out loud would bring back the demons.
Still, many refugees did share their stories with me in the 15 years I worked at a community college writing center.
And refugees are not like you and me. Refugees have far more in common with a Holocaust survivor than with people who sit comfortably at their kitchen table, in the city where they were born, and blog about refugees.
We’re talking privilege differences that make the stark divide between blacks and whites in America look like a crack in the sidewalk.
Apart from Germany, the world’s wealthiest countries are turning away Syrian refugees by the boat full. It’s not an option we have. I’m serious.
Millions of people without homes or legal status, without the jobs they desperately want or the communities they will proudly contribute to, are what we should be worried about. Genocide is what we should be worried about when we hear all the hate speech directed at these survivors, from Fox News labeling 2010 footage of Muslims thanking God as proof that there are potential terrorists among these refugees to Hungary and Poland calling them “trash.” Disasters have already happened. Now, we either help the world pick up the pieces–or we contribute to more atrocity.
Like I said, there’s only one right answer to that question.