Getting Lost in the Noise of the Refugee DebateThursday, February 2, 2017
I remember walking down a dusty alley in Jordan. I was going to meet a doctor. A doctor without patients. A doctor without a home. He’d had a home and patients in Iraq – that is, until the Islamic State came. He’d had very little notice; only time to grab the wife and kids and run. They’d fled Iraq for Jordan. Now they were refugees.
I heard the same story in home after home. Professions differed, but each refugee’s current situation and hope for the future was always the same.
“Next year, I will be in the U.S.,” one of the fathers said, as cartoons played on the TV behind him. Others hoped to go to France or Australia. Always, the hope was to move to the West.
They were all tired. Tired of doing nothing. Tired of not being able to provide for their families.
Even then, my heart was heavy. These were Christians. They were not in a United Nations refugee camp (they were afraid of them). They were not from Syria. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the United States, France and Australia would reject them.
It wasn’t xenophobia that would keep them out of the U.S. It was math. There were simply too many.
That visit to Jordan was in 2015, when President Barack Obama capped the refugees at 70,000 – not 70,000 from Syria or Iraq, 70,000 from around the world. Out of the millions of refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the millions more inside Syria and Iraq, only a small fraction would make it to the U.S.
Then kids started to wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Frustrated and tired of the never-ending conflict at home, and unable to settle in the places to which they had fled, the thousands of refugees began risking everything to make it to Europe.
With every new family that arrived in the European promised land, more attempted the journey, and more dead bodies filled the seas.
Then the attacks came. Violent Muslims had infiltrated the ranks of refugees. Each attack was met with more hand-wringing by European leaders.
Those leaders were unwilling or unable to clearly articulate the values of the West, which were at odds with some values of Muslim nations, and European nationalists became stronger. Police downplayed mass sexual assaults, and European nationalists grew stronger. Violent Muslims used trucks to kill and maim, and European nationalists grew stronger.
In the U.S., the Obama Administration used refugees to score political points against Republicans. Governors from states required to accept refugees repeatedly asked the Obama Administration for details on the vetting process. They were repeatedly told that it was none of their business.
Refugees are useful pawns.
Requests to prioritize refugees were ignored. Requests to include Christians alongside Yazidis as victims of genocide were met with distain. Only after months of pressure did the U.S. State Department finally include Christians as victims of genocide.
Then Donald Trump was elected president. One week after his inauguration – a week filled with protest and rage against every statement and order that Trump made – he signed an executive order describing the position of his administration toward refugees.
Any order of the U.S. government will have unintended consequences. The Leviathan is neither nimble nor merciful. Refugees, visa-holders, even green card carriers and dual citizens flying to the U.S. as the order went into effect, fell victim to Trump’s order. Every foreigner who landed at JFK became a potential pawn to be used against Trump.
Horror stories filled the news. The Egyptian family, having sold everything, was now stranded at the airport. The Syrian Christian family who didn’t speak English well enough sent back to Turkey.
The nation was in a frenzy. Reason was nowhere to be found. Nobody seemed to have actually read the executive order.
Those that did read it were confused. Since when is reducing the acceptance of refugees from 85,000 to 50,000 a ban on refugees? How are 90-120 day delays forever? Why is it moral to accept 100,000 refugees, but immoral to accept 50,000?
The executive order never mentioned the seven nations given extra scrutiny. It never mentioned a ban on Muslims. It even carved out a provision where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could prioritize religious minorities who are most vulnerable to persecution.
Nobody seemed to care. Each side locked in its own information silo, and raged. Funny videos on social media gave way to graphics of dead refugees or dead victims of terrorists.
Christians, who had days earlier been fervently arguing that morality cannot be legislated, were suddenly demanding the government not restrict anyone desiring to come to the U.S., because “Jesus was once a refugee.”
Simultaneously, those who marched for life on the day of Trump’s executive order found themselves attacked for not raging against the president’s temporary restrictions on accepting refugees from seven nations – four of which are undergoing a civil war.
Typically apolitical pastors and church leaders now find themselves trying to articulate a position that will not alienate some member of their congregation. Most are failing. Many are unwilling or unable to articulate why, as Christians, we can advocate for Christian refugees to be prioritized. Unsurprisingly, some of the most vocal Christian critics of the new executive order are those organizations that receive millions of dollars from the federal government to settle refugees.
Lost in the noise is the very positive movement on the establishment of safe havens in the Middle East. For years, numerous organizations including the one I work for have been advocating for safe havens where ethnic and religious minorities would be safe from the ongoing sectarian wars.
As people marched to bring refugees to the U.S., Trump was speaking with leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan about how to help refugees stay in the region – and remain safe.
True love and compassion for refugees requires me to use the limited resources and limited slots available to advocate for the prioritization of the most vulnerable refugees first.
It fuels my work on the establishment of safe havens to protect Christians within their ancestral homelands.
It drives my belief that the U.S. should help to end the conflicts that caused the refugee crisis in the first place.
It shapes my understanding that our government should continue to uphold its obligation to protect both its citizens and the church – upholding its obligation to be a prophetic witness and agent of mercy.
Truly loving refugees means defending them where they are.
Not using them as political pawns.