The Syrian refugee crisis and recent terrorist attacks have pushed the American public to delve into civic questions of who ‘we’ are and where we draw lines of inclusion and exclusion in our society. We’ve asked Meghan Horner, a longtime professional working in refugee resettlement and non-profit/NGO development, to write this guest post offering a perspective on the tough, lengthy and necessary work of tolerance and inclusion.
Photo Credit, Meghan Horner
by Meghan Horner
I have spent most of my professional life working in refugee resettlement – over 12 years either directly in resettlement or with service providers supporting refugees. On behalf of the many dedicated professionals I’ve worked with and the many courageous families that I’ve met from Iraq, Sudan, the Congo, Burma, Bhutan and others who arrive as refugees, I want to shed a little light on the concerns I am hearing about whether or not refugees admitted to the US pose a security risk.
Simply put, they do not. And, importantly, the argument that they do is a misdirection.
First, refugees admitted through the US resettlement program are the most investigated and verified group arriving in this country. They go through repeated vetting with multiple departments – including Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center – and there are more checks I won’t list here because they are exhaustive. NPR has a great brief of the process.
The idea that refugees pose a security risk is a misdirection and the legislation passed by the House to limit the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees provides a false sense of security. It is a politically expedient way to prey upon our fears that Paris, Beirut, or Mali could happen here. The fact is that the very loose Visa Waiver Program, in which citizens with passports from more than 40 countries can travel to the US for up to 90 days without the same type of vetting refugees undergo, poses more of a security risk, as it currently exists, than the refugee program. Yet this program has wide support as it brings in enormous revenue from tourism. Again, refugees are scrutinized and vetted multiple times before granted US entry. Homegrown radicals from countries included in the Visa Waiver Program are only flagged if they are a previously known entity.
The resettlement program is critical to US foreign diplomacy. It provides a small but important resource for countries overwhelmed with large refugee migrations. Lebanon, a country normally of 4 million people, is also host to over 1 million Syrian refugees. Can you imagine the type of financial, social and political strain this puts on a relatively small country? The Lebanese army is a critical ally in the fight against the Islamic State; foreign assistance to Lebanon, including humanitarian aid and the possibility of refugee resettlement for a small portion of their refugee community, is critical to the stability of this ally. Again, any refugees from Lebanon who are eligible for US resettlement undergo multiple checks. The US can deny any petition under any reason under the current resettlement program.
I am incredibly disturbed by the call of some of our elected leaders or hope-to-be elected leaders to impose a religious litmus test on sanctuary. Religious beliefs are protected characteristics as defined by the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the US is a signatory. Even without this legal agreement, as Americans, we should applaud this idea of freedom from religious persecution. To exclude and objectify Muslim communities under the mistaken assumption that they mean us harm is a short-sighted and manifestly misguided idea. There are many, many Muslims condemning the terrorist attacks including many American Muslims. Google it and you’ll see.
Furthermore, in our globalized world, how does excluding Muslims answer the very complicated issue of religious extremism or young adult alienation? If we carry this idea to its logical conclusion, where we separate ourselves from every opportunity to interact with anyone who is different, we arrive at an untenable solution – a world that does not and cannot exist. We merely delay the timeline for addressing any challenges in a meaningful way, pawning it off to our children without providing them with any tools for understanding or working with people who are not exactly like them. Under such a scenario, I see more violence for them not less. That is not a world I want to leave to my children.
Lastly, these calls to limit resettlement for the people who precisely need it the most is solid-core cold. Refugees are humans. They have hopes and dreams. In another world, they are your parents, your grandparents, your children. Through resettlement services, I have met several Iraqi translators who worked directly with the US forces overseas. I met a young couple who named their child Leonardo, not after di Vinci, but because they loved Titanic. I have met single mothers who raise their children to become nurses, community-builders and researchers. They come with talents and a desire to live a life of peace. Receiving them openly and warmly is living up to the most laudable standards we set for ourselves in this country. This is at its core what it means to be American, a country of immigrants.
I do not write here to argue that I know best how to make our communities safe. I write because I hope that those of you who are only learning about the resettlement program from the politically-charged public discussions understand that it is as safe as we can make it, that it is a critical part of our foreign diplomacy and that its place in our community is valuable for learning how to live in a global world. There are great joys to be found in the opportunity it offers us to learn from our neighbors. I hope that this helps you to think more deeply and critically about this issue than our public discourse often allows.
I’ll leave you with a story. Several years ago, I lived down the street from a Afghan widow and her children. The family is Muslim, from a country we went to war in. They were resettled through the US resettlement program. The widow and I struck up a neighborly friendship and when I came down sick one day, her children showed up at my door with a meat stew. I am a vegetarian. I didn’t know what to do. But I did know that she was on a limited income and that she had cooked this in love. Not wanting to offend, I ate it. When I was better, I returned her pot and thanked her for her kindness. A few weeks later, I mentioned off-handedly to her children that I was a vegetarian. Their mother, a bit perplexed and with a twinkle in her eye chastised me, “Meghan, why didn’t you tell me? We make delicious vegetarian food!”
I support Syrian resettlement and the refugee resettlement program.
Meghan Horner is a graduate of Boston University’s School of Theology and Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. She worked with the International Rescue Committee, an international humanitarian agency, for over eight years. She is the co-founder 2M Strategic Consulting and can be reached at Meghan@2MStrategicConsulting.com. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT.