Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
About ten years ago, my parents (who live in Kenya) took in an infant from South Sudan, a refugee from an African nation rapidly descending into chaos. The desperate journey out of Sudan took the life of her mother and sibling, and she was flown out of the country on a small plane. Ten years later, she still lives with my parents and is considered an adopted sister to all of us.
This January, the U.S. President signed an executive order that would restrict the migration of refugees from seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan (recently updated to exclude refugees from Iraq). These are primarily women and children fleeing war-ravaged homes in desperation most Americans simply cannot fathom.
The rising chorus of voices in opposition, particularly those of conservatives who typically back Republican policies, has been heartwarming.Denying safe harbor to people fleeing war-ravaged countries is deeply shameful and wholly un-American.
Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief says, “The decision to restrict entry of refugees and other immigrants. . . contradicts the American tradition of welcoming families who come to the United States to start their lives again in safety and dignity.” And continues, tying this fundamental American ideal to the fact that the vast majority of Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Michael Wear, evangelical Christian and former faith advisor to President Obama, tweeted, “Trump’s immigration executive order is playing politics with people’s lives.”
Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist quoted in the New York Times last fall, who has a particular ability to say what he really wants to say without actually saying it adds, “It’s not unusual that we have politicians timid in the face of fear, but the task of the church is a different one.”
Ed Stetzer, of Wheaton College, says, “If America bans refugees, it makes a statement to the world that we don’t want to make. It is the picture of someone who sits, arms crossed and turned away, with a raised eyebrow and a ready attack on the helpless, the homeless, the broken.” To our shame, we’ve made this statement before, with disastrous consequences.
Politically, I came of age in the mid-90s, and I have never forgotten the horror of Rwanda.
The President’s currently proposed temporary ban on refugees would last 120 days. If you feel that a delay is reasonable, consider this. In Rwanda, from April 6 to July 16, 1994:
- 800,000 to 1 million Rwandan men, women, and children were slaughtered, with some estimates closer to 2 million
- 250,000 to 500,000 Rwandan women were raped, 67% of whom were infected with HIV
- 50,000 Rwandan women were left as widows
- 75,000 Rwandan children were orphaned
The Rwandan genocide, and our inaction, is a stain on our history.
Are 100 percent of refugees peaceful people? Probably not, but the percentage who are is probably similar to the percentage of white people who aren’t Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or Alexandre Bissonnette, the terrorist who shot and killed six worshipers at a mosque in Quebec City. And yet people who look like them walk freely down our streets every day.
The reality is that 78% of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States are women and children, and there is less than a 1 in 3 billion chance that you will be killed by a refugee. If those odds don’t sound good to you, then you should probably stop doing pretty much everything you do on a daily basis.
I have never met my sister. Travel to Kenya is prohibitively expensive, even more so when multiplied by the five members of my own family. Cost and the occurrences of life have gotten in the way. My parents have also made a commitment to make sure that one of them is always with her. Which means I have not seen them, together, in years.
The particulars of my sister’s flight from Sudan have made it hard to get documentation for her to travel. The bureaucratic intricacies of the United States and Kenya colliding with the realities of South Sudan, which is, in truth, a country in name only. Still, slow, if frustrating, progress was being made toward legalizing her status as an adopted child, a critical first step necessary for her to travel outside of Kenya.
I have a lot of thoughts about the President’s plan to bar refugees from countries he considers a threat to our national security, but primarily I’ve been thinking about my sister. In my mind, my assumption was that in time, perhaps a long time, her status would be resolved and she would be able to travel to the United States. Now I’m not sure that will ever happen.
I recognize that my story, and that of my sister, pales in comparison to the current plight of millions of refugees. Whatever her status in the United States, she is currently safe in Kenya, and though it breaks my heart that she may never be able to travel to the United States, I am not equating her situation to people who are currently fighting for their lives. But ten years ago, she was a refugee, and the only reason she’s currently safe, or even alive, is because she had a mother with an indomitable will to protect her child; and a pilot, a family in Kenya, and a Kenyan government willing to accept her.
I’m tempted to wonder what the President would say to me if he heard the story of a sister I may never meet, and parents I may never again see at the same time. But the reality is I know what he would say. He would tell my family that we must “suffer the consequences.”
My response to the President is that we have a word for responding to events in fear instead of doing what is right: cowardice.
Denying safe harbor to people fleeing war-ravaged countries is deeply shameful and wholly un-American. History will judge the United States for this moment, and rightly so.