As I sat across from Sayed Kashua, a prominent Arab Israeli writer, at dinner and heard him utter these words, I was hit with the realization that in today’s political environment, there were very few people who truly understood the weight of this statement. There were very few people who could understand what it means to be a refugee; what it means to lose everything, to be forced to flee your home, your country just so your children can have a chance at education; to have to walk hundreds of miles in pitch darkness with nothing but the clothes on your back praying you don’t get shot as you struggle to live another day. And as a result, there were very few people who could empathize with those whom they have only known as the “other”.
The attacks in Paris last year left the international community shaken up and quickly but surely caused a shift in our national security landscape. John R. Kasich, Governor of Ohio, who previously supported the Obama administration’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees from their war-torn country, wrote a letter to the president later that year requesting that no additional refugees be settled in Ohio. This was met with an inspiring response by the Wooster Westminster Presbyterian Church in the form of a letter to John Kerry, dismissing Islamaphobia as a sin and stating its support for refugees, Syrian or otherwise. The Presbyterian Church offered to provide a safe sanctuary for up to three refugee families, and help them integrate in the community.
Despite this important step in the right direction, only three refugee families are being accepted by the Church, due to their limited resources, out of the thousands that are fleeing from Syria. Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics Annual Flow Report shows that in the year of 2013, only 2,788 refugees were resettled in Ohio; that is, only 4% of the total number of refugees being resettled in the United States. According to the United Nations, 13.5 million people inside of Syria are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance whilst more than 50% of Syria’s population is currently displaced. Amnesty International’s reports indicate that more than 4.5 million refugees are clustered in five countries in the region: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. And yet, despite this steadily increasing humanitarian crisis, many states have closed their borders to these people in need. Why? Because of the perceived threat of terrorism.
Theoretically, there are three different types of refugees, but the vast majority of refugees who are seeking formal asylum in the United States are “situational refugees”. Idean Salehyan defines situational refugees as those who do not have a direct grievance against that state, but rather, are caught in the middle of government-rebel fighting and are the least likely to engage in violence.
It is these refugees who go through an extensive vetting process before being allowed refuge in the United States. The U.S. Department of State first collects biographic and other information from applicants to prepare them for their adjudication interview and security screening, before officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services review all the information and conduct an in-person interview with each refugee applicant. Finally, all USCIS-approved refugees must undergo a health screening to prevent contagious diseases from entering the United States. All of these steps ensure that the likelihood of infiltration by terrorists posed as refugees is extremely low.
The success of this vetting process was identified by Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute, who stated that since September 11, 2001, the United States has resettled 784,000 refugees, of which exactly three refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities; two of whom were not targeting the United States whilst the plans of the third was “barely credible.”
Given the facts, statistics and theoretical research presented by highly reputable academics, on what basis are we refusing to provide a safe sanctuary to those in need? Why is it that we, as a community, are not able to support the Church in their efforts to provide safe sanctuaries for innocent victims. Refugees fleeing their war-torn country are people. This is a humanitarian crisis. And it is inhumane to to turn our back on people who are experiencing “the worst thing that can happen to a human being” solely on the basis of their national or religious identity.