On Refugees: My Story and Some Facts

November 19, 2015 · 7:28 pm

I grew up in an area where conflict rose and fell like the tide—sometimes the fighting increased, and sometimes the calm.  It could be measured by how often in the night we heard the war cry echo between our mountain and the next, and by how many late-night knocks came to our door asking for my father’s help to chase cattle thieves.  This, to me, was normal.  This was the way things were.

There came a time when things changed.  We heard less about raids and more about battles.  I was forbidden to play at the river with friends.  We stopped taking walks when we found a warrior’s arrow on a path near our house.  I was too young to understand the politics of this war, but the tension I could feel.

Late one night, my father’s truck rumbled into our yard full of women and children from a nearby homestead.  Mattresses were spread out on every corner of the floor, and I felt simultaneously happy for the company and annoyed by the invasion of my private space.  In the days that followed, we drove past their homestead and saw what remained.  Every house had been burned to the ground.

As the conflict escalated and threats were made against my father and our family, we made the choice to leave. We left behind our home, and that was painful, but we were privileged to have that choice.  We were privileged to have a vehicle to carry our family and our possessions.  We were privileged to have money to pay for temporary accommodations.  We were privileged to have the support of an organization to help us decide what to do next.  We were privileged to have passports that made travel in and out of the country easy.  Eventually, we were privileged to be able to go back.

These experiences have shaped me in many ways, both obvious and unseen.  They led me to study refugee populations in college and to work in the field of refugee resettlement.  They led our family to take dozens of refugees and asylees into our home over the years—some for a few days, and others for months on end.

It has been heart-wrenching to see a population that I care passionately about—that I identify deeply with—tossing so violently on the sea of public opinion.  Just a few months ago, I saw worldwide heartbreak over the drowning death of a little boy during his family’s flight from Syria.

Aylan Kurdi

Aylan Kurdi Made in #waterlogue by robertsharp. CC

Today I see this collective sorrow has been replaced by fear.  And that fear has sparked some of the most vile responses I have ever seen.  At best, I see a reluctant decision to choose a sense of security over compassionate assistance.  At worst, I see gross generalizations and lies about people of middle-eastern decent, Muslims, non-Americans, and immigrants as a whole.

The fear I can understand.  I don’t believe it’s always well-informed or rational, but I can forgive people their humanity.  However, using fear as an excuse to maliciously slander entire groups of people is both shameful and dangerous.  Our words have power, and at this point in history, the lives of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children can be directly impacted by what we say.  Please research diligently before making statements that could be harmful to others.  Please research diligently before believing statements that could be harmful to others.

For Your Information

On the Threat of Refugees to the U.S.: In the history of the United States, no terrorist attack has ever been carried out by refugees.  Of the 784,000 refugees who have been resettled since September 11, 2001, only a handful were arrested for plotting terrorist attacks.  And these were caught because in addition to screenings before entering the country, refugees, like other immigrants, continue to be under close scrutiny after coming to the U.S. Some have referenced the Boston Bombers as refugees, however they did not enter the U.S. as refugees, but as asylees. Asylees are in a similar category to refugees, but have a very different screening and entry process.  It’s also worth noting that they entered the U.S. as children, and their families have not be implicated in the terrorist attack.  This seems to be an unfortunate case of young people who were radicalized long after they settled in the U.S.

On the Refugee Screening Process: FBI director James Comey has stated that there are flaws in the FBI screening process for Syrians. His primary point was that the FBI can only screen refugees against information it has on known terrorists.  So if a terrorist has never previously come under U.S. radar, they won’t be screened out.  And because Syria is in a state of turmoil, the Syrian government cannot corroborate the FBI’s information.  This is a statement of the obvious more than a revelation, and holds true for every single person both in and out of the U.S. that the FBI checks: it won’t find information on potential terrorists unless they have previously been linked to terrorism.  It’s worth noting in the first place that the FBI is just one of several organizations that do interviews and background checks on refugees.  It is also worth noting that Comey does not support new legislation in the House about refugee screenings. Comey has stated that the “FBI believes it has an effective process with intelligence and other agencies to conduct vetting of refugees.”  For a more in-depth look at the refugee vetting process, please check out this article from the Wall Street Journal.

On Terrorists Disguised as Refugees: Those who enter the U.S. as refugees undergo more screening, interviews, and background checks than any other method of immigration.  The process often takes years, and refugees have very little control over when they will be chosen for resettlement, and what country they will be resettled in. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “the refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose.”  The simple fact is that it would be easier for terrorists to enter the U.S. nearly any other way than as refugees. There can never be any guarantee that no terrorists will try to enter the U.S. as a refugee, or that someone who enters the U.S. as a refugee might one day become a terrorist.  But terrorists are far more likely to seek out a way to enter the U.S. that has fewer obstacles. As an example, the 9/11 attackers held tourist, business, and student visas.  This means that in the first place, terrorists aren’t likely to choose the refugee program as a means to enter the U.S., and in the second place that stopping refugees from coming to the U.S. will not deter terrorists from trying to come another way.

On Terrorists in the U.S.: The majority of those who have committed terrorist attacks in the US have been natural born U.S. citizens, not immigrants.  These are people who were born and raised in the US.

On the Risk of Terrorism: Terrorism is real and scary.  It can and will happen again, and we can’t always stop it.  But we shouldn’t live in fear of it and we shouldn’t let it define us.  The truth is that in a given year, lightning kills four times as many Americans as terrorism does.  While we’re vigilant about lightning (we cancel football games and try not to stand outside in thunderstorms), it wouldn’t make sense for us to live in fear of it.  There are too many other things in our lives to occupy us, like spending time with the people we love. In fact, despite the fact that we see so much violence in the news, the world has never been so safe. Don’t give terrorism a bigger voice in your life than it deserves.

On Refugees and Veterans: I’ve heard a lot of comments about how we shouldn’t be helping Syrian refugees when there are homeless vets here in the U.S. who need help.  This is a classic red herring argument—the two issues have nothing to do with one another.  On a policy level, funding to help veterans and funding to help refugees are in completely separate parts of the budget.  Choosing to fund one program does not threaten or take away from the other.  On an individual level, people should feel free to support both causes.  If you feel that your money is better spent supporting vets than refugees, feel free to put your money where you mouth is.  You can donate to help homeless veterans here.

On Violence in Islam: It has been suggested that Islam is fundamentally violent and therefore Muslims, as a group, are a threat.  This is an extremely complicated issue, but let’s start by deconstructing it a bit.  Major religions don’t exist in a vacuum.  They exist in a world where history, politics, geography and ethnicity all play a part.  Throughout history countless wars and acts of violence have been carried out in the name of religion.  But these wars often (perhaps always) have other driving factors: be it conquest, retaliation, economic gain, etc.  There is no doubt that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda operate under the name of Islam, but many driving forces contributed to these groups becoming what they are today, dating back to the U.S./Soviet Cold War and beyond. And despite claiming Islam as their cause, the National Counter-Terrorism Center has stated that between 82% and 97% of worldwide victims of terrorism were Muslims themselves.  Christianity also has an extremely bloody past, including the European Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.  Both Islam and Christianity have also had periods of relative peace, such as the Islamic Golden Age , in which Muslim societies made great contributions to Mathematics, Science, and the Arts. The Qur’an and the Bible both have some very violent passages, and historic and contemporary understandings of these passages include many varied interpretations.  It would be nearly impossible, and quite frankly, irrelevant, to say definitively whether Islam or Christianity is historically the more violent religion.  But it’s safe to say that religion, in general, has played a large role in historic violence.  It is harder to say what part of any given conflict is a direct product of religion, or whether religion is a proxy cause for other underlying conflict. The following two clips offer some facts and perspective about violence in Islam.

On the Character of People of Middle-Eastern Origin: I’ve seen several comments on Social Media along these lines (I’m not exaggerating): “I served in the [armed forces] in [Iraq/Afghanistan] and those people hate Americans.  Those people throw boiling water on their own babies and sexually abuse their children.”  I have no doubt that people who have served in the armed forces have seen plenty of atrocities and plenty of hate.  But it’s simply not accurate to make assumptions about an entire group of people based on a few experiences in an undoubtedly extreme situation.  People from Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria are just that: people. By and large, they are peaceful, hardworking individuals who love their families, just like you or me.  You will find killers and rapists among any population in the world, but there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that people from the Middle East are somehow more degenerate than any other population in the world. If you want to base your opinion about people from the Middle East on anecdotal evidence, then let me be of service.  I know many people from the Middle East—some Muslim, some Christian, some from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, some boisterous, some quiet, some conservative, some liberal, some traditional, some modern, some religious, some secular, some that I’ve loved spending time with, and some that I found a little annoying. But I have never been treated with anything but kindness, hospitality, and respect by any one of them.  They have been clients, coworkers, neighbors and friends.  They have brought food when my babies were born and invited me into their homes. It would be ignorant, inaccurate, hateful and destructive to paint these people with the same brush as militants and extremists.  Please don’t do it.

On Why Syrian Refugees Need Our Help: Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, millions of Syrians have fled to surrounding countries and Europe. For a detailed explanation of the Syrian Civil War and why people are fleeing, check out this article by The Atlantic.  According to the UNHCR, “4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt see no prospect of returning home in the near future, and have little opportunity to restart their lives in exile.”  They can’t go home.  Accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. might seem like a drop in the bucket when compared to the millions left behind, but for those 10,000, it changes everything.  It means having the chance to work and support their families. It means raising their children in a home rather than a make-shift tent.  It means the prospect of education and a new life.  These are the people most impacted by war and terror.  These are not people who step out of the thunderstorm to avoid lightning: they’ve already been struck again and again.  For a look at how this plays out on the ground, check out this video by Smaritan’s Purse.

If you would like to get involved or donate to help refugee resettlement, check out these organizations that work with refugee resettlement nation-wide. You might also consider contacting your state representative, senators, and governor to let them know you support resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S.  If you feel you can’t support refugee resettlement in the United State but still want to help, consider donating to the UNHCR, which supports refugees in refugee camps and various other stages of their journey.

And please, please, please do not take part in spreading fear and hate.  We already have enough of that.

12 Thoughts on “On Refugees: My Story and Some Facts

  1. Brenda M on November 19, 2015 at 8:52 pm said:

    Thank you, Esther, for this rational, fact-filled commentary. Much appreciated.

  2. I may have bought this in till you mentioned Qur’an and how it is being misinterpreted. Good scholars all agree death to infidels. It is not fear but being logical and cautious. Maybe we need to tighten up all vetting of immigrants.

    • Les, perhaps “interpretation” was not the best word to use there. I don’t mean that in the literal sense, but rather related to different “understandings”. Here is an example of a modern understanding of some of those verses: http://www.justaskislam.com/32/does-islam-say-kill-the-infidels/

      This is similar to how in Christianity, there are multiple understandings of different scriptures. As one example, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Christians generally don’t believe that Jesus calls us to literally hate our parents, although that is certainly what the verse says.

      There will always being disagreement about what these types of passages mean, in both the Qur’an and the Bible. But I think you’ll find that most Muslims do not adhere to an understanding that would condone the killing of innocent people.

  3. There is some misinformation in your article.

    First, on the issue of vetting, of course it is impossible – especially in Syria where there are no records and opportunity to research anyone’s past. The best they can do is interview the refugees. And God knows the terrorist would be honest in these interviews…geez!

    Here’s another fact about vetting: according to the State Department, the majority of the vetting process any refugee goes through before coming to America is NOT done by the United States. We rely on referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (and we all know how the United Nations is so concerned with America’s well-being…). Some refugees never even meet an American until they are in the USA.

    Secondly, as far as the Bible vs. the Quran is concerned, the Old Testament verses of violence are there but they are historical, overrode by the message of grace in the New Testament or devalued by the reformation of Christianity. You see, unlike nearly all of the Old Testament historical verses of violence, the verses of violence in the Quran are mostly open-ended, meaning that they are not restrained by the historical context of the surrounding text. These verses are for today!

    It’s also important to note that every religion but Islam has experienced reformation. This is especially true of Christianity. Simply put, the verses of violence found in the Old Testament are historical NOT practical.

    Not so with the verses of violence in the Quran.

    These commands of violence are part of the eternal, unchanging word of Allah, and just as relevant or subject to interpretation as anything else in the Quran. The context of violent passages is more ambiguous than might be expected of a perfect book from a loving Allah; however this works both ways. Those who practice Islam could certainly denounce these verses and disavow themselves from Islam’s violence, shameful treatment of women and gays and outdated laws. However, they don’t.

    Most of today’s Muslims exercise a personal choice to interpret their holy book’s call to arms according to their own moral preconceptions about justifiable violence. Apologists cater to their preferences with tenuous arguments that gloss over historical fact and generally do not stand up to scrutiny. Still, it is important to note that the problem is not bad people, but bad ideology.

    Unfortunately, there are very few verses of tolerance and peace to abrogate or even balance out the many that call for nonbelievers to be fought and subdued until they either accept humiliation, convert to Islam, or are killed. Muhammad’s own martial legacy – and that of his companions – along with the remarkable stress on violence found in the Quran have produced a trail of blood and tears across world history.

    Here’s a simple test that plainly illustrates the vast difference between the Bible and the Quran. Live both, follow all the commands and see what kind of person you become. Follow the commands of the New Testament and you will become humbly strong, serving and loving. Live out the commands of the Quran and violence will be your normal course of action.

    Sorry your comparison of the Bible to the Quran doesn’t hold up.

    • Randy, we’ll have to agree to disagree about the Bible and the Qur’an. I won’t deny that the Qur’an can be read as promoting violence, but millions of Muslims around the world who are following the Qur’an as they understand it are “humbly strong, serving and loving.” I also know that in present-day Uganda, Christians have felt the Old Testament urged then to kill homosexuals. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion about what each of these books “really” teaches, but the practical applications by people have never been cut and dried.

      Would you be willing to provide some sources for your comments about the refugee vetting process?

  4. My jaw dropped on the floor when you said ” It would be nearly impossible, and quite frankly, irrelevant, to say definitively whether Islam or Christianity is historically the more violent religion.” It is the saddest, most outrageous thing I’ve seen in all the 700 blog post that I’ve read about this crisis. Everything else you wrote went out the window after reading that line. WOW! WOW! WOW!

    • Georgia, this is my conclusion based on my research of each religion throughout history. If you can offer statistics that show something different, I’m willing to check them out.

  5. Keep up the prophetic voice, my friend!

  6. Carl Hansen on November 20, 2015 at 5:01 pm said:

    Esther, I am really proud of you and what you are doing to make this a saner world!

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