Let’s talk about refugees, because God knows everyone else is.
The collective freakout on the right about the idea that we might, maybe, accept a few thousand displaced women and children (which they are, mostly) is perhaps the most embarrassing and depressing excess of the modern American GOP yet. It is horrifying in its lack of empathy and logical inconsistency. It is terrifying in its xenophobia and appeal to fear as a transparent politial ploy. It is so ridiculous that, if it weren’t for the fact that people will die as a result, it would be goddamn hilarious.
It is also absurdly predictable that it seems the same folks apoplectic about the prospect of gay marriage are just as adamant that the refugees should stay away. These supposed Christians would cherry-pick Old Testament law (as they’re all presumably wearing blended fabrics and enjoying shrimp) to deny legal protections to their gay brothers and sisters while Christ was completely silent on the subject — but now that we have a situation that Jesus preached about repeatedly, they ignore Him (which isn’t entirely surprising; these folks are also typically opposed to social programs designed to aid the needy closer to home).
We are certainly not a Christian nation in any legal sense, but we do seem to enjoy thinking of ourselves as guided by Christian principles, at least in terms of charity — or, at least, that’s what we might say we aspire to. Except we aren’t, really, not when it counts. We are anti-Christian in our treatment of the needy, in our acceptance of those different from us, and in our willingness to choose lengthening our own tables instead of strengthening our doors when our neighbors are in need. “I got mine, you get yours” isn’t a Christian mantra.
Jesus taught very specifically on this subject, and with some frequency. The most famous instance is the parable of the Good Samaritan, taken from the Gospel of Luke (10:29-37):
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are no weasel words here. He is quite clear.
Remember, too, what He says in Matthew 25, which is even more explicit about what He expects of His followers:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
My point here is not that we should govern our nation according to the words attributed to Jesus because he was divine. We are not and should not be a theocracy. However, we have for pretty much our entire existence as a nation been the place that refugees came. Diaspora after diaspora have found homes and lives here when no such options existed for them in their homelands. They made us a stronger nation, because we are not homogenous. Even our origin story is about refugees — a fact that should be particularly clear this week.
God bless President Bartlett. Sure, he’s not a real President, but what he says above goes to the heart of who we should all want America to be. Reagan famously spoke of us being a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of freedom and hope for those all over the world — but what sort of beacon can we really be if we’re too terrified to accept those huddled masses yearning to breathe free?
We have always struggled to live up to who we said we wanted to be, even from our beginnings in 1776. But we wrote them down, so we can keep referring to them: the idea that all people are created equal, and that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is why our doors must remain open. We should be the example state, not the counter-example. We have spent much of the last 14 years in a state of perpetual freakout, but it’s time for that to STOP — not in the least because terrorism isn’t really a danger for Americans (statistically, bees are a bigger problem). By giving in to the baser impulses of fear and xenophobia, we do ISIS’ work for them; let’s not do that. Refuse to be terrorized, least of all by women and children.
I get that this isn’t easy with so many on TV telling you to be afraid. Remember that it’s easy to get people to pay attention to you when you say there’s danger, especially when you pin it on people who are different. Be strong. Be critical. And remember the point of terrorism: it’s right there in the name. Refuse to become the anti-foreigner freakout nation that ISIS wants to goad us into being. Every time a middle-eastern refugee puts down roots in the US, opens a small business, and raises his family here, it’s better than a thousand bombs when it comes to destabilizing and eradicating those jackasses. Every time we prove that we mean it when we say all people are created equal, and that all of us deserve the pursuit of happiness, we prove their worldview is a lie.
The shitstorm in the Middle East today will not get solved without bullets, I fear, but it also cannot be defeated by violence alone. We have to show people a better option. It’s an ideology based on poverty and despair, and my bet is that we can show folks a better path by embracing those in need, taking them to our collective chest, and making them part of our great American experiment.
I’ve said much of this before, in various Facebook comments in the past few weeks, but what really set me thinking this morning is a long piece in the October 26 New Yorker called “Ten Borders.” It’s the story of a young man’s protracted, difficult journey from Syria — which was collapsing around him — to Sweden, where he’s been welcomed as a refugee. What he endured to get there, and the risks he took, are staggering. Seriously, take the time to read it. You were probably born in a country that stayed safe, after all.
There are a few bits I want to share directly, though:
When Ghaith arrived in Sweden, an immigration officer recorded his fingerprints, ran the data through an E.U. database, and confirmed that he had not previously been processed in Europe [Note: this is about the Dublin Regulation]. “You are now under the custody of Sweden,” she told him. “Sweden will take care of you.” Ghaith subsequently attended an orientation session to learn, as he put it, “what Sweden owes to me and what I owe to Sweden.”
On the bus, Ghaith scrolled through music files on his phone. The Swedish national anthem started up, loud enough to turn heads. “I listen to it each morning,” Ghaith said, proudly.
An hour later, six more of Ghaith’s friends—all Syrian refugees whom he knew from law school or from Jdeidet Artouz—showed up carrying a grill, a bag of charcoal, and a three-foot hookah. They stripped to their underwear and prepared to go swimming. These were friends for life, Ghaith said, though he otherwise cared little for Syria anymore. Once his wife arrived, they would have children and he would raise them as Swedes. He didn’t care if his kids spoke Arabic. He added, in broken English, “I worship Sweden.”
Around the same time, Austrian authorities found an abandoned poultry truck with seventy-one dead refugees inside. Ghaith said that he couldn’t help but feel lucky: “I made it, while thousands of others didn’t. Some died on the way, some died in Syria. Every day, you hear about people drowning. Just think about how much every Syrian is suffering inside Syria to endure the suffering of this trip.” He paused. “In Greece, someone asked me, ‘Why take the chance?’ I said, ‘In Syria, there’s a hundred-per-cent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.’”
Can you, as an American, read these words and be proud of how we are comporting ourselves during this crisis? I cannot. I am not. We are being ruled by small, petty, venal jackasses screaming on TV about how giving aid and comfort to victims of ISIS will somehow endanger us. It’s embarrassing and ridiculous. Fuck fear. The last 14 years have been a never-ending stream of fearmongering bullshit, and in the wake of it we have done terrible things that are absolutely anathema to the values we SAY we hold dear. Let’s fix that.
Virtually everyone who will read these words is descended from someone who left their original country and came to the US seeking a better life. That is, in a very literal sense, who we are. It’s what we’re made of. Let’s return to being that. It can only make us better.
Do not let the terrorists change who we are any more than they already have.
But how can I change what politicians are doing? What difference can I possibly make?
Glad you asked. Turns out, governors can’t close their states. Refugees are coming to your state, almost certainly, but will need help integrating and settling in. (If you’re local to me in Houston, this goes double — Houston is historically a popular refugee destination; it’s something that makes our city so awesome.) You can literally be the welcoming, helping hand by calling the folks at Refugee Services of Texas. Odds are, if you’re reading my blog, you’re pretty damn well off compared to folks escaping war with the clothes on their backs, right?
Joining or helping to start a Welcome Team seems like a great place to start. Let’s help them out. (h/t to Autojim for locating this organization.)
(Confidential to the “but terrorists!” crowd: according to stats from CATO quoted by John Scalzi, we’ve accepted 859,629 refugees since 2001. Of those, THREE have been convicted of planning terror attacks, and none actually happened. For perspective, 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.)