I. What We Lose
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump singlehandedly banned refugees from Syria and six other countries from entering the U.S. As Rudi Giuliani brazenly admited, in order to avoid the illegality of a ban based on religious and ethnic discrimination, refugees must be portrayed as a “security threat.” Like America’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930s with the excuse that they too would be a “security threat,” Trump’s ban violates our precious values, singles out countries from which no terrorist act has been carried out, and stokes the fear that tears at the fabric of our society. But it does much more: it deprives us of friends, neighbors, and colleagues who will inspire us with their courage, resilience, and endurance.
The people who fear refugees most are those who have never met them.
Sadly, politicians know this , and they can easily fan the flames of those fears and curry favor with supporters by demonizing refugees as terrorists. When they turn refugees into scapegoats and ban them from our shores, they falsely believe that they can block out the horror of war, chaos, tyranny, and persecution—often created by our own doing– that brought them here. But in fact, they deprive us of models for courageously overcoming great hardship and loss, and of new and enduring relationships that lift us up.
II. Let Me Explain
I have had that honor of developing those relationships. My husband, Lewis Ames, and I worked with Syrian and Afghan refugees this past fall in Berlin. I met young Syrian men—heroes of resistance– who refused conscription in Assad’s brutal army because they refused to kill their fellow citizens. They joined the flood of other refugees who escaped unspeakable horrors to protect their families and friends from war, torture, and persecution. We learned of the hurdles they were forced to jump in order to leave; how soldiers of all stripes lay siege to their cities and villages, waging campaigns of terror, blocking access to food, water, and medicine. It took tremendous courage and endurance to resist, escape in haste, and bear the great loss that they suffered.
We learned from those who made it to the protection of a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon, that they were compelled to develop the patience of Job, the biblical character who also lost everything in a single day and long endured pain without a complaint passing his lips. Today refugees often languish for 15-20 years in camps, waiting for the relief of asylum. They undergo extreme vetting. Thousands line up each day to register with the UNHCR. UN officials interview each person multiple times. Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you know? They must answer patiently and politely over and over again. And then they must wait for the chance that they might be in the 1 percent that the U.N. refers to the United States for resettlement. Then Homeland Security officials interrogate them multiple times, looking for inconsistencies in their narratives. Each time they must answer politely and patiently. Bureaucrats incessantly run the answers through U.S. security data bases, always looking for red flags. The vetting process takes months and even years. They grow older but their lives are on hold. Children in the camps grow up with little or no schooling. All endure hunger, sandstorms, sweltering heat and freezing cold.
Unlike Job, many make their voices heard in complaint. And lodging complaints and organizing to protest against inhumane conditions has often brought about vital positive change. Those who boldly dare to raise their voices have learned important lessons in how to face and overcome any injustice, no matter where they land. And for most of the refugees who suffer in camps and must learn to live there the best that they can, the patience and discipline they exhibit in the face of hardship and humiliation is an awesome expression of human dignity.
III. The Perilous Journey and the Catch 22
Those we met in Germany, however, were not so patient. They calculated the odds of resettlement and would not wait. Instead they chose to leave on a treacherous journey to seek permanent refuge. When asylum seekers set off on that search, they embark on an Odyssey, a “hero’s journey.” Like Odysseus, they brave storms, shipwrecks, criminals, loneliness, fear, lawlessness, and harm. On their journey they must live in a world in which their dignity is striped away and they can no longer live as human beings. Forced to sleep on the streets, they are alone, on the move without physical security or legal protection, on the move in a world in which their rights as human beings are not recognized. Both women and men face sexual and physical abuse, theft, and violence along the way. There are no “refugee visas” to allow them entry into countries where rights are conferred. They must travel on foot, by bus, and by sea, entrusting their lives to smugglers and depending only on the kindness of strangers.
There is much kindness. For example, the Greek Coast Guard captain in the short documentary 4.1 Miles, saves lives every day and suffers with every loss. But, like us, he found this dangerous journey hard to fathom: “They come from war; they escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families in the Greek sea. Losing each other in the Greek sea because of the way they have to cross. Why do they have to cross that way?”
The answer is this: Although refugees have a “right” to asylum at the end of their odyssey, those countries who promise them refuge deny 99 percent of them legal entry. How can that be? Ironically, those countries who promise refuge are bound by law to accept refugees only when they are within their borders. But they have the right to refuse those same refugees entry into their country. The latest Trump diktat only exposes and extends this longstanding cynical policy. Like the rulers of many other countries, he believes his “wall” and executive orders will seal the borders. But they will not. For centuries, refugees have shown that they will defy humiliation, pain, injury, barbed wire, oceans, walls, and death in order to find safety.
The journey to find asylum throws refugees“outside the realm of ‘humanity’[i] They alone must come to recognize their own unalienable rights. To be able to endure, they must come to embrace their own worth as human beings while those around them refuse to recognize it. I am humbled and inspired daily by the undaunted courage that they find in themselves to do so.
IV. The Challenges of Safety
Those who manage to reach the shores of safety where they can finally request asylum face new hurdles. They must now learn patience and determination. They must find new reservoirs of courage and resilience inside themselves. In Berlin’s Tempelhof camp they live in 16×16 ft. cubicles without ceilings, clustered together in giant airplane hangars with no natural light. With little language facility, they must set out alone to search for language schools, child care, apartments, and jobs in a foreign land. They must walk the halls and sit for hours in the waiting rooms of Kafkaesque bureaucracies. In Berlin they must search for months for child care, even after they have been turned away with the words, “no room” for the nth time. In Germany I saw endless rows of ads for apartments which stated, “No refugees.” For all of Germany’s show of kindness and efforts to integrate refugees, housing discrimination is still legal.
The young men, women, and families we came to know demonstrated inspiring resilience; they plow ahead, letting nothing dim the hope that they can finally build a new life in peace and without fear of persecution and death. They are immensely grateful to their hosts who have reluctantly given them refuge. And they are proud of their heritage ….ancient cultures of magnificent art, sublime music, majestic architecture, and fertile lands where the first wheat was cultivated and the first olive tree was planted. Syrians proudly claim that Aleppo is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. I was honored to become friends with such amazing and intelligent people who show the depth and richness of their civilization in their faces and in their halting German words. Germany is fortunate to be able to integrate them into its society. The United States would be wise to continue doing so.
V. Enriching friendships
Of course refugees are heartbroken about friends and family who are still trapped at home, as their countries are destroyed. In their solitary hours, they are often depressed and terribly homesick. Although they are energetic, cheerful, and polite when with us, we knew that we were always in the presence of people who have experienced great sorrow. Now they just want to be normal people with a normal life–but that is not possible as an asylum seeker. I met Christian, for example, an Armenian-Syrian, who told me that he would have loved to come to Europe as a tourist rather than a refugee, to learn about European civilization, relax, take pictures, and then go home. Now he has no choice but to embrace Europe as his home, no matter how hard that will be.
I grew to know Hafiz, whose parents were killed by the Taliban when he was a young child. He grew up alone on the streets of Kabul, was captured and enslaved as a boy, escaped to Iran as young man, and has fearlessly led his young family to safety in Germany. I am awed by his fierce determination to survive and achieve. He studies daily for hours even when his teachers tire of his questions. He rides transit and walks the city of Berlin to find work, child care, and an apartment. Maybe he is discouraged after a year in the refugee camp, but he doesn’t show it.
I met Adnan who still can’t seem to believe that one day he was teaching in a high school in Aleppo, and a day later, all that he knew was destroyed and he was on the run. He is withdrawn and traumatized but still moving forward one step at a time. Now when I write to him to ask about his family in Aleppo, he sends me pictures of flowers—-unable to talk about his feelings and trying to think of what is beautiful. And after 10 months he still lives in the Tempelhof airport camp designed as an emergency shelter for a few weeks after arrival.
I met Tariq, who lives in Dresden and was beaten three times by right wing xenophobes– who he calls “Nazis”– and even landed in the hospital. After a long journey to find sanctuary, he is now lost and confused. It is easy to see both trauma and endurance on many faces, fierce ambition on others, fear and courage on others, and on all faces, happiness and relief when they encounter the kindness of strangers—and feel that the strangers might become friends.
Study after study shows that when refugees can speak the host language and develop their skills, they contribute much more to the economy than they take from it. We learned, however, that they contribute something far greater: Their courage, patience, resourcefulness, resilience, determination, and fight for justice provide a model of how to live.
I am well aware of the risks of reducing my friends to these virtuous qualities and romanticizing them in this attempt to transform the dominant image of “the refugee” as victim and threat. Like all of us, they are individuals with human weaknesses as well as the strengths that they have been forced to cultivate. Nonetheless, their positive impact on the lives of their hosts has been immeasurable. I think of my refugee friends at the times I grow impatient on hold with customer service. I think of them when I can’t find parking and have to walk to a meeting. As I struggle to practice the piano for half an hour—something I choose to do in my leisure, I think of the long hours they spend learning a foreign language in a foreign alphabet Sitting in my cozy home, I think of them, as they walk miles each day to search for a place to live or try to find daycare for their children. When I grow complacent, I think of their struggle for justice. I think of the challenges I have faced in my lifetime and know that they have met and overcome far greater obstacles while still at the tender age of our students. Their courage has encouraged me. They have transformed my perspective. I no longer think of them simply as victims but as heroes.
[i] Brad Evans and Zygmunt Bauman, “The Refugee Crisis Is Humanity’s Crisis” The New York Times, May 2, 2016.