(This is an updated version. The original post appears below.)
My heart is really heavy this morning. I saw on the news that the FBI had arrested a 21-year-old Syrian man, who entered the United States as a refugee, for an ISIS-supporting bomb plot against a church in Pittsburgh. A flood of emotions, thoughts, questions overwhelmed me.
Today is World Refugee Day, a day for standing in solidarity with people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and persecution. But the headline I saw wasn’t about how refugees pay taxes, start businesses, or create jobs. It wasn’t about how communities with an influx of refugee resettlement in the years 2006-2015 saw decreases in violent crime rates. It wasn’t about how refugee families on the way home from the airport are already asking when they will learn English or when their kids will start school. It wasn’t about how refugee families invite caseworkers into their homes for tea, demonstrating the utmost hospitality even when they have few financial or material resources.
It was about a Syrian refugee with a bomb plot.
Of course, I condemn ISIS and any terror plot, including this one. Of course.
But the thing is, I know that so many other refugees do, too. Refugees have often experienced terrorism firsthand. They have been persecuted for their religion, race, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group, or any combination of these. Many of them would be disgusted if you asked them whether they ever considered joining the violent group that caused them to flee their homes. The vast majority of refugees, including those from Muslim-majority countries, do not want to create more violence—they only want to live in peace.
Please, I’m begging you, please don’t let Mustafa Mousab Alowemer become the story of refugees in America. To my knowledge, he is only one of fewer than ten refugees who have been arrested in the past several years for ISIS-related activity, while thousands upon thousands of refugees have been resettled peacefully. Refugees have built vibrant lives and become vital contributors to their communities. How come white Americans can shoot children at school and it’s not the story of all white Americans? How come people are already generalizing one incident related to refugees to argue that all refugees are terrorists? (Just look at twitter: you’ll see it.) This claim is just not true. I know firsthand.
The refugees I’ve met and worked with this summer have faced immense hardship. They fiercely love their children. They want to work and support themselves and their families. They have invited me into their homes to serve me tea and snacks after I do something as simple as picking them up from the grocery store. One refugee I’ve worked with this summer didn’t speak a lick of English six weeks ago, and has now learned to say hello, how are you, I am good, thank you, and goodbye. I met a refugee from Syria at a World Refugee Day event this past weekend; she said that I had touched her heart by speaking with her in the few Arabic phrases I know. Yesterday, one family taught me how to say “I love you very much” in their native language so that they could say it to me and I could say it back. Then they tried to guess in the car which way we’d turn to go to their house, and cheered and laughed when we went left and their sister was correct. As I dropped them off, they hustled inside their house to get me a bottle of water before I drove away. The refugees I’ve met this summer are peaceful, strong, kind, and brave. Please, think of them, these beautiful people—not one person with a plot to bomb a church—when you think of refugees.
Today, I will wear my GA Loves Refugees shirt. I will serve my refugee clients as best I can. I will walk away from the temptation to see hate and respond by spewing more hate; I won’t even get into arguments with people doing that on the Internet. I will raise my voice to share the stories of the thousands, the millions of refugees who only want peace. I will choose love over fear. Please, join me.
(Original post below.)
It’s World Refugee Day! World Refugee Day, held annually on June 20, commemorates refugees’ resilience, resourcefulness, and contributions to their communities; gives us an opportunity to stand in solidarity and support with forcibly displaced people; and reminds us that millions (yes, literal millions, 25.4 to be exact) of people have no home right now (yes, right now, as you read this) because they have been forced to flee.
I’ve been interning at a refugee resettlement agency this summer and loving every second of it. It’s allowed me to discover a deep passion for the forcibly displaced and to learn about the global migration crisis and the refugee resettlement process. For World Refugee Day, I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learned and ways you can get involved in helping refugees around the world or in your own backyard.
I hope that you will learn something from this blog post. I hope that your heart will break a little for the plight of millions who have been forced to flee their homes. I hope that you will find empathy and compassion for their struggle. I hope that this empathy and compassion will drive you to get involved, in some big or small way, to help refugees. More than anything, I hope that this post honors the refugees I have the undeniable privilege of serving this summer. They are some of the most generous, hospitable, grateful, hard-working, incredible people I have ever known. They deserve any and all respect and dignity I can show them with my words.
There’s so much to learn about the global migration crisis that it can feel overwhelming. Here are a few pieces of information that I think are the best starting point:
- One of the most important things to understand about refugees is the difference between a migrant, refugee, asylum-seeker, and internally displaced person (IDP). This one-pager explains the definitions. The main differences are in reason for flight and process of seeking safety. Migrants leave their homes voluntarily. By contrast, refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs (collectively referred to as forcibly displaced) are forced to flee their homes owing to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. To seek safety, refugees cross an international border and receive refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR provides refugees with (limited) food, water, shelter, and health care, and may consider them for resettlement to a third country, such as the United States. Asylum-seekers seek safety by presenting themselves at a port of entry to a country like the United States, where they are interviewed (or wait for an interview, or are detained while waiting for an interview) to see if they qualify for asylee status, which allows them to stay in that country for their safety. IDPs seek safety by leaving their home, but not crossing an international border. (They may be on their way to an international border, or unable or unwilling to cross an international border.) Understanding these terms is key to understanding the global migration crisis as a whole. The global migration crisis refers to the unprecedented numbers and extremely difficult conditions of forcibly displaced people around the world. Which brings me to my next point…
- Stats. Overview figures from UNHCR show these unprecedented numbers, as well as where refugees come from and where they’re being hosted. A lot (and I mean a lot) more information can be found in their 2017 Global Report.
- The resettlement process, which is how refugees come to a third country like the United States, is also important to understand. UNHCR has a good overview of resettlement. It’s crucial to note that people who have committed serious crimes or may pose a security threat are not eligible for resettlement. Once a refugee goes through the long, long, long process of resettlement, they face additional hardships in a third country, including limited language proficiency, seeking employment, difficulty navigating the health care system, prejudice, cultural adjustment, and more. Resettlement agencies, like the one I’m working with this summer, try to help refugees integrate into their new community.
- Beyond the numbers, the definitions, the legal jargon, and the generalizations about refugees’ plights, it’s vital to understand refugees’ stories. Refugees are so often lumped into just one category—refugees—that we forget they’re also people, who have incredible strengths, talents, senses of humor, friends, family members, aspirations, favorite foods. Refugees are human, just like you and me. We absolutely must remember that. A great book about refugees’ stories is City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence. Women of the World Refugee Podcast and Refugee Stories: In Their Own Voices are two great podcasts to learn more about individual refugees. Compelling videos include a twenty minute documentary from Refuge Project and this shorter one focusing on refugee children.
As you learn the stories of individual refugees, you will be filled with deep sorrow for all they’ve endured. For many, that heartbreak, empathy, and compassion leads them to action. There are so many ways to get involved in alleviating the pain and suffering caused by the global migration crisis. Here are just a few:
- Give your time. Volunteer at a resettlement agency in your area. You could take refugees to doctor’s appointments until they learn to use public transit, serve as an interpreter if you speak another language, or just be a source of social support while refugees adjust. You never know how valuable a first friend in America could be! You also never know how you could use your unique gifts: Luma used her soccer skills to start Fugees Family, a soccer team now supplemented with academic programs, which has made a difference for young refugees on her team, their families, and the larger community in Clarkston, GA.
- Give your money. You can donate financially to a resettlement agency in your area. UNHCR also accepts donations.
- Give your time and money: Knit! There are several ways to knit or crochet for refugees. I just finished my first blanket for Welcome Blanket, and Knit Aid (currently on hiatus) accepts knitted donations for refugees. This is a great way to communicate to refugees that they are loved. You go out, buy the yarn, spend hours knitting something together, and send it off with the hope that it will keep someone warm. That handmade item isn’t just practical and useful; it’s a beautiful reminder to a refugee that someone, somewhere, cares about them.
- Support refugee-owned or -supporting businesses. Refuge Coffee in Clarkston is definitely a fan favorite, but there are so many more in the Atlanta area and throughout the United States, from auto repair shops to restaurants to clothing stores. Do a little Googling and find a business that helps refugees near you.
- Learn a few words in another language. Refugees may speak one or a few of many different languages, from Swahili to Arabic to Urdu to Burmese. Learning “hello,” “how are you?,” and “goodbye” is an easy way to create an instant connection with a refugee and help them feel less alone.
- Ask who they are, not what happened to them. I received this instruction in our intern training and thought it was so valuable. It’s natural to wonder why a refugee has come to the United States, but to ask is requesting that they recount what’s likely the worst thing to ever happen to them. How would you feel if a complete stranger asked about the worst thing to ever happen to you? I’m guessing not so good. Instead, ask about who they are. What are their dreams in the United States? What do they enjoy about life in the United States? What makes them happy? I know I said earlier that you need to understand refugees’ stories, and I absolutely believe that, but you need to earn the right to that story through relationship. A one-time encounter at a World Refugee Day event, or even a few weeks volunteering with a refugee family isn’t enough to justify invading their most private memories. Respect who they are as people by respecting their right to tell their refugee story to whomever they choose, whenever they choose to do so.
- Share this post with a friend. If you’ve learned anything here or you’ve been inspired to get involved, consider sharing this post or some of its resources with a friend. I can only reach my own circle of influence with my words, but if you reach your circle and they reach their circles? The ripple effect can help so many people learn about a largely misunderstood issue and the people it affects.
Let me know if you want to chat more about refugees, the global migration crisis, or another related topic; I’ll gladly talk more about it. I hope that, wherever you are, you feel safe in your own skin. And I hope that you’ve learned something and been inspired to do something for those who don’t feel safe, all around the world.