Welcoming refugees: moving beyond fear

The last few weeks have proven a trying time for our nation as we wrestle with how to best respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.  The discussion and debates have increasingly intensified since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut.  Even within Christian churches we find a disparity of views on how best to respond with much of the discussion rooted in a fear being fed by both the media and politicians.   Most of us aren’t surprised by the idea that “fear sells” and our media (both conservative and liberal leaning) knows fear is good for business.

A great example is media coverage of shark attacks.  Over the past few decades we’ve seen little statistical increase in the chances of you being attacked by a shark at the beach.  The increase in attacks is mostly due to more people visiting the beach (ex: more people riding bikes= more people wrecking on bikes).  When visiting the beach the statistical chances are far greater that you will be injured by falling in a hole than encountering a man eating shark.  Yet there’s no coverage of EMT’s rushing to help the next hole victim.  There’s no push to fill in holes or to keep those pesky toddlers with their shovels off the beach.  Anyway, back to a more important issue…

Over the past 40 years the US admitted approximately 3.25 million refugees.  Most years the US commits to allow 70,000 refugees to resettle here. Over the past decade we’ve seen new arrivals from places like Somalia, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Bosnia, and a few from Syria.  Many have been victims of terrorism and not surprisingly are not big fans of terrorism.  A recent article from the Economist regarding refugees explains:

They undergo investigations of their biography and identity; FBI biometric checks of their fingerprints and photographs; in-person interviews by Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings as well as investigations by the National Counter-terrorism Centre and by American and international intelligence agencies. The process may take as long as three years, sometimes longer. No other person entering America is subjected to such a level of scrutiny.

Refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists, says Kathleen Newland at the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. Of the 745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.


We also need to remember our nation’s own spotty history in this arena.  We have a reputation as being a nation of immigrants, a beacon of hope, life, and liberty, and for good reason.  We can also see times when we weren’t quite all that- rewind a few decades in our nation’s history to see what happens when fear paralyzes us and prevents us from helping a people group.  I remember touring the holocaust museums in both Jerusalem and Washington DC and was surprised to learn that due to fear, the US turned away thousands of Jewish refugees during the 1930-40s.  Much of the fear was rooted in the misguided idea that Nazi spies would enter the US with refugees.  As a Smithsonian article documents:

World War II prompted the largest displacement of human beings the world has ever seen—although today’s refugee crisis is starting to approach its unprecedented scale. But even with millions of European Jews displaced from their homes, the United States had a poor track record offering asylum. Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.

Eventually we pushed the Axis powers out of Europe, destroying Hitler and his military,  but we all know now of the millions of holocaust victims who died before victory was achieved.  The common refrain from many as we watch documentaries or movies like Schindler’s List, The Pianist, or Band of Brothers is “we should have done more.”   Then the American public and Christian church had some excuse of ignorance and limited information about the gravity of the situation.  Today we have no such excuse. History repeats itself and an opportunity is before us again.

Admittedly this is personal.  Each morning when I take my son Jude to elementary school, I fist-bump several of his friends before I give him his goodbye hug.  Two of his buds are named Mohammed and Sangham.  Their families are  religiously Muslim and Hindu.  I understand their worldviews and theological perspectives are different than my own.  I also know God cares about them and I’m fairly certain God would rather them be in a safe place, getting to actually be children,  having some hope of a future, rather than wondering whether they’ll live to be adults.

Isaiah 58:6-12

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

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