“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”― Mahatma Gandhi
My first reaction to the story I read last week about a Minnesota woman who attacked another woman across the face with a beer mug in an Applebee’s restaurant was one of disgust. The reason for the attack? The victim was visiting with her family in the next booth in a language other than English. I wondered how anyone could be so hateful. Then I saw the picture of the attacker. I saw a sad and disheveled woman who looked like she was dealing with many struggles in her own life. Obviously, she had somehow come to believe that an immigrant, probably struggling with many of the same problems as she, was the cause of her misery. Her fear led her to act out in a hateful, misguided way. The immigrant woman in the next booth had done nothing to deserve being assaulted.
We should be careful our fears do not make us act in ways contrary to our faith or to our claim of being a nation “under God.”
My first experience with refugees came when United Lutheran Church sponsored two Vietnamese refugee families in the early 1980s. These families and many other “boat people” fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. The sponsorship of these two families was also my first experience with the work of Lutheran Social Services’ Refugee Resettlement programs.
Our Vietnamese friends left their homeland because of fear of reprisal for their collaboration with the US forces during the Vietnamese war. They sold everything they owned to pay for their escape from their homeland. The people who provided the ill-repaired boats which carried them into the sea and away from the rest of their families, their work, their homes, took advantage of their desperation. There was not enough food or water for all the people they crammed on the boats. The boats were barely seaworthy. In the middle of the South China Sea, they were attacked by pirates who stole the boat’s motor and stripped the people of everything of value. Then the pirates threw everything else overboard–Bibles, passports, glasses, extra clothing, pictures of loved ones. They even tossed one of our friend’s dentures into the sea.
After days of drifting with almost no food and water, they were rescued by a passing freighter and taken to Thailand where they were interred in a refugee camp. The camp, more a poorly provisioned prison than a camp, was a dangerous and desperate place to live. After a couple of years, our friends were cleared for immigration to the US as refugees.
There were many Americans who didn’t think we should bring Boat People to this country. For many of the veterans who had fought the Viet Cong, the memories were too raw. Others were afraid the new immigrants would take their jobs or be a drain on our economy.
The families we sponsored were tired, broken, sick and destitute. They came to live among us with nothing. They were so traumatized that they slept their first nights in their new home huddled together on the floor of one room, afraid to be separated from one another. They spoke little English and were bewildered by much of their new experiences. Otherwise they were much like my own family. They loved their children. They wanted their kids to have the opportunity to live a comfortable and safe life, to have an education, to be happy. They were willing to work and were grateful for our help. They became part of our community.
Our friends eventually moved from North Dakota to live in places where there were more Vietnamese, much as my Norwegian grandparents did. There they established their own businesses, paid taxes, sent their kids to universities, helped others, and contributed to our country in many ways.
Of course, there were Vietnamese refugees who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just as many of our returning soldiers did. Some of them did not do well. There were good parents, bad parents, good students, drop outs, and kids who got involved in gangs–just like those of us who were lucky enough to be born here. Like other Americans, the majority of the Vietnamese refugees were good people wanting peace and freedom from fear.
Now we are told we should be afraid of giving homes to Syrian refugees. We are warned that they could be terrorists or that all Moslems are bent on doing us harm. Some of us worry that taking in a relatively small number of those who have fled their homes in Syria will take resources that could be used to care for the homeless and needy in this country. We are told to be afraid and that fear leads us, perhaps not to hate, but to act in hateful ways.
A couple of friends and friends of friends on Facebook have posted the question that if presented with a handful of M&M’s or grapes and you knew one or two of them were toxic, would give them to your children or eat them yourself? The implication is that, of course, you would reject the whole handful just as we should reject all refugees because there might be a terrorist among them. Refugees are not, however, M&M’s or grapes. They are people, desperate, cold and homeless people. How can we turn our backs of the millions of people who are victims of the terror in Syria because there might be a few who would do us harm? The odds of being hit by lightening on the golf course is hundreds of times greater and no one quits playing golf.
World Vision estimates that half of the 12 million Syrians who have fled their homes are children. Most of the more than 4 million Syrians who have gone to other countries are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, places with their own conflicts and economic problems. Most of those millions of children do not have enough to eat, have inadequate health care, are susceptible to all kinds of diseases and are not in school. They are at high risk of being abused and exploited. These are the people fleeing from the terrorists and their most violent actions. They are the Syrians on our side of this conflict. How will they feel about us, the richest and most powerful country in the world, if we turn them away?
Just as one can reduce the odds of being struck by lightening by going to the clubhouse when thunder starts, I believe refugees who come into this country are, and should be, well vetted. Syrian refugees are subjected to even greater scrutiny than others. If they do manage to navigate the paperwork and interviews and are granted refugee status, they will have spent a year and half, two years or more in a refugee camp. Of course, there is a risk that the process may miss someone who seeks to do us harm. There are also those who are born and raised here who might also become terrorists. Others come to this country with visitor and student visas. Life is full of risks. None of the ones we face, however, are as great as the risks these displaced people have already experienced.
As North Dakota Representative Kevin Kramer said recently, we can and must help support refugees in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. It will be winter there soon. Everyone needs enough food to eat, clean water to drink and a warm place to sleep. Unlike Mr. Kramer, I don’t think we can stop there. The rest of the world, us included, need to allow the world’s displaced to find a place to live and to find some hope for the future.
Before deciding what you believe about this issue, read more about World Vision, Mercy Corps and others’ work in refugee camps around the world. Check out the Refugee Council USA’s and Lutheran Social Services of ND’s web sites before you accept the claims that refugees get all kinds of free assistance not available to US citizens. Learn more about the civil war in Syria and why millions of people have fled their homeland. Fact check claims made on Facebook, whether you agree with them or not.
Don’t succumb to the enemy of fear.