He was 27, single, Iraqi, and most likely Muslim. By all accounts, he was the quintessential description of the type of refugee many Americans argue should be denied access to our country. I wonder if he knows this.
He arrived to the U.S. only 3 months ago, yet his English was efficient enough that I would have guessed it’d been a year. We were at a festival for refugees. I was there to help hand out prizes, he was there to socialize. The event started in chaos. There were games for children to play where they could earn tickets for prizes, but all their eyes beheld was an array of toys to be taken. Inept to explain the process, we quickly realized we needed someone to communicate the rules. “Kasim” immediately jumped in to help. He was only asked to translate 1-2 sentences, but he stayed at the booth for two hours. It was 95 degrees and brutally humid, yet he never took a break to stand in the shade, and had nothing to drink until I finally thought to bring him some water.
It took a little while before we struck up any conversation. This was partially due to the fact that we were busy with the children, and my personal uncertainty surrounding cultural expectations. Sure, we’re in America now, but I think there’s something good about displaying respect for other cultural traditions. I wasn’t sure how conservative of a background he had, and didn’t want an effort at friendly conversation to make me come across as an obnoxiously forward American girl. Eventually, after seeing him interact with others, I felt the freedom to converse.
Over the course of interspersed small talk I learned where he was from, his age, and that he has no family here. I asked if he’d been able to find a job yet, and he told me no. He hopes to obtain work at Walmart once his English is good enough. He attends ESL classes weekly, and says that he loves them. It’s apparent he’s working very hard, because he speaks better English than I ever spoke Spanish, despite 3 years of study in high school. For the entirety of the festival he was consistently kind and proactively helpful.
While Kasim is just one person, and doesn’t represent every Middle Eastern man, it’s important that we remember the humanity of those we talk about when we discuss issues like refugee resettlement.
There is so much cold and hateful rhetoric that’s emotionally embraced rather than thoughtfully weighed.
“It’s too dangerous to take refugees from the Middle East, what if they’re secretly terrorists.”
“Why would we provide assistance to citizens from other countries when we can’t even take care of our own?”
It is never as simple as that. I don’t advocate for a reckless policy. After all, if we desire to welcome we should also desire the safety of those we welcome… throwing caution out the window could propel our country to become just as dangerous as those places refugees are seeking to escape. But for the many who oppose refugee resettlement from certain areas of conflict, it’s important to understand that there ARE numerous safety measures in place. It is a long and grueling process to gain the status of refugee. It can take YEARS to actually make it here. And while it’d be presumptuous to assume there’s no risk involved, I’m not sure where Scripture tells us that loving others is a risk-free calling.
And to those resenting that non-citizens benefit from (very limited) government assistance, please, I beg of you, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine there is such violence, terror, and unrest in your country that you are forced to leave everything you know to seek solace somewhere else. Imagine your sense of loss and grief. Then on top of that, imagine that you finally make it to another country. A country where you don’t speak the language, which leads to mutually frustrating situations, and often results in being treated with contempt. A country that’s tastes, smells, and traditions, are completely different than yours. And then, thank goodness, you get government assistance for just a few months. During those months you work extremely hard trying to learn the language, knowing that it’s your only hope of finding a job. Finally, regardless of what your occupation was in your home country, you consider yourself lucky to gain a job at Walmart. Meanwhile, you remember your home, wishing you’d never been forced to leave, yet also relieved to be distanced from the nightmares that drove you away. You might have PTSD, which will inevitably go untreated. And the more immersed you become in your new culture, the more you hear and understand how very many people don’t want you there.
This is a tragedy.
I plan to write a more thoughtful discourse regarding refugees, because there are complex facets that require thorough evaluation. But I wanted to start with a simple story and a coinciding simple truth. Because this simple truth is what brings such gravity to the discussion. We are talking about actual people—individuals created in the image of God.
They are not just statistics.
They are not hypothetical profiles.
They are real human beings, seeking to escape real horrors.
I’m grateful to have met Kasim, because even though I’m “pro-refugee resettlement,” he fits the description of those I’d consider lowest priority. While I still affirm that priority should be given to the most vulnerable groups—namely women, children, and the elderly—it should never induce apathy towards people who don’t meet that profile. Let us sympathize with those, like Kasim, who have to jump higher hurdles to make it here, and let us grieve for others who can’t quite make the cut.
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