Look, America, I get it. Terrorism is scary. We all love Paris. An attack on the home of existentialism, the Musée d’Orsay, and perfect flaky croissants is hard to process.
But your reaction is a little… unhinged. Despite the fact that all the attackers who’ve been identified are European citizens, we’ve seen a shameful rush by U.S. governors to bar Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states. Talking heads are screeching about the threat these desperate people pose to our safety. And a candidate for this country’s highest office just proposed a federal Muslim-banning bill.
Which makes me wonder: Do you not know what a refugee is, America?
It’s okay if you don’t, but maybe tone down the rhetoric until you’re up to speed. Here are the basics:
Refugees are not blood-sucking monsters from outer space. Under U.S. law, a refugee is anyone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”. The word “persecution” in this context doesn’t just mean harassment or general unpleasantness. It means serious harm or suffering inflicted on the basis of identity. These are not people leaving their country because they can’t find a job or think they might like the weather better somewhere else. They are victims of serious human rights abuses running for their lives.
Refugees don’t come here on a whim. Nobody wants to leave their family and livelihood behind, fleeing to dubious safety abroad. I represented asylum seekers (people who satisfied the legal requirements for refugee status but were already physically present in the U.S.) for several years and never met one who was happy to be a refugee. They were relieved to be safe, and profoundly grateful to America for taking them in, but heartbroken at being unable to go home. They wouldn’t have left if they’d had any choice about it.
Refugees can’t just walk into the U.S. It’s not easy to get refugee status here. The federal government doesn’t just take your word for it that you’re the target of the kind of actual or threatened persecution required to qualify as a refugee. You have to prove it. For many, this means providing doctor’s assessments attesting to torture, witness statements, and media or NGO reports of the abuses they’ve suffered. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers comb through this evidence and screen applicants in person. For those in refugee camps abroad, who have been registered with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and referred to the U.S. government for vetting, the process can take years. Then, they undergo multiple background checks and a medical screening before they are approved to come to the U.S. for resettlement.
Refugees aren’t housed in American homes. This should go without saying, but two days of tweets asking me how many Syrians I’ll be hosting suggest that it doesn’t: Refugees who are admitted to the U.S. from overseas get their own homes. They’re not quartered in citizens’ houses like unwelcome troops. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services work together with a variety of non-governmental organizations to coordinate the placement of refugees. They place new arrivals in one of 190 local U.S. communities, provide short-term financial assistance, and help them to navigate the transition to a self-sufficient life in America.
Refugees need our help. Only a very small fraction of refugees (less than 1%) are ever resettled in a new country. But half of those who are come to the U.S., which has resettled more than three million refugees since 1975. Together, the U.S. refugee agencies and the private citizens who donate their time and money provide a safe haven and a welcome mat to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the violence of ISIS are exactly who this program was intended to help. But now Congress is considering blocking them entirely from resettlement in the U.S.
If you want to help, tell your representatives not to abandon the Syrian refugees. If you’re not sure what to say, Oxfam’s got your back:
For more ways to help, check out Refugee Council USA’s “How You Can Help Syrian Refugees“.