Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let's Talk About Real Refugees, Shall We?

A few years ago in Anchorage, I was riding in a cab as I often do on work trips. If I'm not messing around on my iPhone, I'm usually talking to the driver, because they often have interesting stories to tell and I usually learn something new.

This particular day was Election Day. 

The driver was a man, in his mid-thirties maybe. He had the radio on, and the news station was reporting about the election. We got to chatting, and I mentioned I was in town because of work, because of the election. He laughed. "In my country where I come from," he said cheerfully, "We don't even know the meaning of this word, 'election.'" I asked him where he came from. "Somalia," he replied.

When he dropped me off, he got out of the driver's seat to help with my bags. As he handed them to me, I asked him how he liked living in Alaska, how he was adjusting to the cold. He smiled, put his hands in his pockets, and gazed briefly upward. He looked back straight into my eyes. "I love it here," he said simply. 

Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but in that moment, I felt he was communicating true relief at having left a failed state. One in which he had probably seen and experienced atrocities I couldn't begin to imagine in my comfortable, sheltered universe of free first class airline upgrades and five-dollar lattes.

I didn't catch his name, but I've been thinking about this man a lot over the past few days. And here's what I want to know:

I want to know if even just one of the people calling for America's rejection of refugees (e.g. Donald Trump) knows what it means to be a refugee. Have they ever spoken to or met a refugee? Have they even the slightest inkling of what refugees endure to get here? Do they know how hard they work once they get here? Do they understand what refugees are leaving behind? Do they understand the arduous vetting process refugees undergo to resettle here? Do they recall that America is founded on the principle of open arms to refugees in crisis? Do they know the statistical fact that in the past decade in America, 301,797 people have died from American-perpetrated gun violence compared to 71 deaths from terrorism? And that not a single one of the 750,000 refugees who have settled in America since 9/11 has ever been arrested or charged with domestic terrorism?

No. Of course they don't. Or if they do, they feign ignorance. They just want to get elected, even--or perhaps especially--if it means effectively defecating on the values of the nation they're proposing to lead. 

To paint refugees with the broad-brush label of "terrorists" and turn them into straw bogeymen for political gain is unconscionable. It's disgusting. It's wrong. It's shameful. It's immoral. It's probably illegal. And it's profoundly un-American on every conceivable level. If we don't raise our voices in opposition to these disingenuous maneuvers now, then we don't deserve to call ourselves Americans.

It's easy to call yourself a patriot. That's just a word. But as I wrote yesterday, it's moments like these in history that truly test the meaning and substance of our words. Future generations will not look--and historically have not looked--kindly upon people who turn their backs on refugees in crisis. 

Will we be on the right side of history this time?

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