Thoughts on Welcoming Refugees - by Rebecca Bell

Rebecca Bell is a resident of Kalamazoo County, one of Michigan's 12 Welcoming Cities and Counties. She offers the following reflection on welcoming refugees... I have been amazed, encouraged and blessed by the outpouring of love and support for us and for this Congolese refugee family that is currently staying with us. I know that some of you would do exactly what we’re doing if you had been the ones presented with the need and had the space. Others of you are passionate about welcoming refugees and your desire to help springs out of that. Others of you are simply compassionate people, and when presented with an immediate need, you take action. I commend that! Some of you probably think it’s crazy of us to do this, but support us because you love us, and I understand that. We would be foolish to think for a hot second that what we’re doing here isn’t viewed with deep skepticism by some of you. Refugees coming to America is a hot topic to say the least, and somehow now we’ve found ourselves right in the middle of it, both through Joel’s work, and through our personal sense of mission to actively advocate for and welcome refugees, going as far as opening our home. Because we are deeply connected with the process of refugees coming to the US, it is something Joel and I have thought deeply about. We’ve worked hard to educate ourselves about the process, the cost, the security, and the moral issues involved. I want to address a few of those. First of all, our belief in the rightness of welcoming refugees into the US has its roots in our faith and our theology. So, some of my arguments may not resonate with you if you are not a person of faith or if you adhere to different faith beliefs. As a Reformed Christian, I believe that history is moving toward a day when Christ will return and, in one decisive moment, make all things new: heal every hurt, dry every tear, mend every unhappy division. As followers of Christ, then, our role is to live into that blessed future by endeavoring always to represent a foretaste of it. We envision what will be restored when Christ returns, and we follow the leading of His Spirit as we work toward bringing that resurrection reality, that bright light of the Father’s love through Christ, into the broken world of today. That is our guiding principle, and in my observation those who follow that principle (or rather, who follow Christ, truly), end up leading lives and choosing paths that seem very strange to the prevailing worldviews of the day. Having said that, I still believe that it makes rational, pragmatic sense to welcome refugees, even for those who do not adhere to the worldview I expressed above. History absolutely steamrolls some people groups. This has always been the case, but in a world of bombs and guns and faster communication and travel, I believe that dynamic has become more and increasingly acute. From afar it is easy, and perhaps intellectually and morally comforting, to ascribe to the idea that these groups of people are part of corrupt societies whose cultures have held violence dear for so long that they are all killing each-other all the time, and there is not much that can be done. That they have made their beds, and now they must lie in them. The truth, however, is that these refugee camps are almost entirely made up of thousands upon thousands--millions, actually-- of people who have simply fallen victim to conflict raging around them, when all they wish to do is to raise their families in peace, make a living, continue a normal life. Refugee populations include countless families that have lived peaceful, rural, family-oriented lives for generation upon generation, until forcibly and violently uprooted from everything they have ever known. When it comes to the minuscule percentage of refugees who are ever considered for resettlement to the US, the United States is very, very careful to weed out any of those who might possibly have been implicated in the conflicts, or have a violent history. The United States has the most exclusive and restrictive immigration policy in the developed world, and the layers upon layers of security checks are almost unbelievably restrictive. (Your lawmakers know this, by the way, and the fear-mongering and calls for a need to increase security in the resettlement process is a political trick. Fearful people are easy to lead by the nose.) When millions of people across the world are watching their lives drain away as they simply wait, stuck, in refugee camps, I do not believe that the rest of us can turn a blind eye and preserve our integrity or, ultimately, our humanity. Some of you would say that you absolutely believe that they should be helped, but that they need to be helped somewhere other than here. That flying them halfway across the world is the wrong solution. I understand that line of thinking, but with a bit of research and understanding it is clear that many of these refugee-producing conflicts are currently intractable; that a scorched-earth approach in so many of these countries has left people with truly nowhere to go. And neighboring countries in the developing world already host over 86% of the world’s refugees, stretching already taxed resources to the breaking point. I agree that uprooting people from every shred of normal context they have ever known is really a terribly non-ideal strategy, and I think most every refugee in the world would heartily agree with you. But for the ones we accept here, it has become their only option. I do not want to be a part of a society that says, “if their situation is truly without hope unless we step in, then that is too bad for them.” We must understand that for the refugees begging for resettlement in Europe and North America, this is truly their last and only hope for anything resembling what we would call a “life.” And we must not turn a blind eye to that. Even if from a purely pragmatic standpoint, hopelessness causes or exacerbates so much of the chaos in the world, it is in all of our best interest to do something about it. Again, perhaps my faith informs my views on this to a degree some will not be able to relate to, but I believe that grasping, self-preserving attitudes always results in loss, not gain. I do not believe we exist in a zero-sum economy, but that the picture of gain and loss, giving and taking is far more complex than pundits would lead us to believe. Yes, this family may rely on State services for awhile. However, almost all of their initial support comes from faith communities who are eager to help, and whose resources are not stretched but whose communities are enriched through welcoming and aiding these refugees. The fact is, refugees must pay back their airfare within a fairly quick timeframe, they receive a tiny, one-time stipend, and they are pushed very hard to become self-sufficient very quickly. They will be eager to do so, as it is what they have longed for their entire lives. I believe the gain to our communities will outweigh the cost. Some might see my posts about how the family needs this and needs that, and it might cause one to think, “look at all this support they need. And this only for one family. How can we possibly help refugees as a regular practice?” Well, look at the numbers. Out of some 15 million refugees in the world, only 1% will ever be resettled anywhere. The US takes in no more than 85,000 annually. That is 0.57% of worldwide refugees welcomed here. With a US population of 320 million, these refugees would constitute 0.027% of the population of the US. That means that for every refugee, there are almost 4,000 Americans to help welcome and support them. Surely we can do that. For some of you, your objection to welcoming refugees into the US may be largely an economic one. You disagree with welfare policy, you abhor the use of tax dollars to provide welfare and social services even to Americans, and you resent the idea that we will now bring in helpless outsiders and demand even more tax dollars to help support even more people. I encourage you, then, to reframe this discussion; advocate for your views if you will, but not at the expense of these people’s lives. Because even if the State withdrew all welfare support, and simply said “you may come but we will not help you,” I hope and believe that people of faith and humanity all around this country would step in to fill the gap. (And many refugees asking for resettlement to Europe and North America have skills and professions that allow them step in as economic contributors immediately, without drawing on US economic support at all.) Another objection I commonly hear among my more conservative friends is that we have so many problems in our own country—homeless veterans, endemic poverty, crumbling schools—that we should not consider helping non-citizens when we seem to be so under-resourced to help even our own. Again, I would say that we need to stop thinking in terms of a zero-sum framework. Helping B does not mean not helping A. There is far more complexity involved in terms of gains our country will receive from welcoming refugees, both immediately and in generations to come. For every refugee we welcome, we send ripples of impact across the world, influencing the reputation of and good-will toward the US as a partner on the world stage. In addition, refugees and their children become hard-working, tax-paying Americans. Who’s to say that one of these refugee children won’t grow up to spearhead new initiatives to help the homeless, or improve our schools? Sometimes exactly what we need is a unique, outside perspective. We hear until it sounds cliche that this is a country of immigrants. It cannot be overemphasized that this is so. It is so very important for us to think long-term about this. Perhaps mom and dad will not learn English very well. Maybe they will need some support for a long time. (And maybe not.) But these children will enrich our communities greatly. Last weekend my house was full of African immigrants. Some had come to the US as child refugees, speaking no English and knowing little more than poverty and want, just like the six children currently chattering in Swahili at my breakfast table. They are now social workers, math professors, aeronautical engineering degree-holders, Americans. And they bring a rich culture, a compassionate spirit, a vibrant faith, and new ideas that do nothing but add to our vibrancy as a great country. My children’s lives will never be the same after this experience. They are making new friends, learning bits of a new language, being reminded of our prosperity, witnessing our American friends reaching out to help. Our lives will be forever enriched by doing this small service of hosting a family for a couple of weeks. Various church communities will continue to be enriched by gathering around them with love and acceptance, and receiving the same in return, hopefully for many years to come. Our community and our country will be enriched as these children grow up to become contributors to our economy, our churches, our culture. We live in a world that says we are impoverished by giving. I adhere to a faith that says we are enriched by giving. That we receive the best, richest gifts of our lives in the midst of giving. I see this to be so in my own family, in my own home in which refugee children are sharing our food and our bathrooms and our space and our life. I want to see America become great again. This is how it’s done.