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’ve guessed it’d been longer. 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 and 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 water.
It took a little while before we struck up any conversation. This was partially due to being busy with children, and my personal uncertainty surrounding cultural expectations. Sure, we’re in America now, but it’s good to be sensitive to other cultural expectations. I wasn’t sure how conservative of a background he had and didn’t want an attempt at friendly conversation to make me come across as an obnoxiously forward American girl. Eventually, 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, and he told me no. He hopes to obtain work at Walmart once his English improves enough. He attends ESL classes weekly and 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 proactively kind and 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’s far too 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’s not that simple. I don’t advocate for a reckless policy. After all, if we desire to welcome others into our country we should also desire their safety here… 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’s a grueling process to gain the status of refugee and can take years to actually make it here.
And to those who resent that non-citizens benefit from (very limited) government assistance, please put yourself in their shoes. Imagine there is such violence and terror 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 imagine that you finally make it to another country—a place where you don’t speak the language, which leads to 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 strive to learn the language, knowing that it’s your only hope of finding a job. Regardless of your previous occupation in your home country, you consider yourself lucky to find a minimum wage job. Meanwhile, you remember the home you wished you’d never been forced to flee. The devastation of it all has likely given you 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.
There are undoubtedly complex factors to consider regarding refugee resettlement, but it’s helpful to hear simple stories too. Because stories remind us that 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, the elderly, and the disabled—it should never induce apathy towards people who don’t meet that profile. Let us sympathize with people 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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