Before welcoming Syrian refugees into the United States, there are a few challenging questions that we, as Americans, should ask ourselves.
Are Middle Eastern refugees that are currently living in the United States thriving?
From my personal interactions with refugees over the past 2 years, I believe that Middle Eastern women, in particular Muslim women, are especially at risk of isolation and cultural alienation. Refugee mothers that I have befriended from African countries have made a determined effort to learn English as quickly as possible and to become active in the community either through employment or church activities; Middle Eastern mothers are often isolated at home.
Join me as I give a background summary of a few women I have gotten to know over the past 22 months. These 4 women came to the United States fleeing persecution with the intention of beginning a better life. The relief from danger has now been overrun by feelings of emptiness, homesickness and/or anger over what they have lost. They are torn between a home country that is unsafe and a host country that feels foreign and unwelcoming. *Names have been changed to protect identity.*
Lana has been living in the United States since October 2014. She arrived from Iraq with a supportive husband, a 3-year-old and 2-year-old and also 7 months pregnant. She knew no English, so each time her family came to my home for dinner, she sat silently while her husband engaged in lively conversation. Fast forward another year to November 2015. Lana still does not speak English. Her life revolves around her 3 lively children in a small apartment in a sub-par neighborhood. Her only avenue of socialization is by communicating with the family and friends she left behind in Iraq through Facebook and phone calls.
Consider Abida, an Iraqi refugee in her early 30’s, who has been living in the United States for 6 years. She still knows only rudimentary English. Each conversation with her is strained because of the language barrier. She, too, spends her days at home with her 3 young children. Her husband unexpectedly sold all of their belongings this past July to move to a different state 30 hours west for the promise of a job that did not pan out. They are now attempting to begin life all over again in a new state which I am worried will leave Abida further disconnected.
Fatima arrived December 2014. My daughter, Scarlet, and I were the one’s to pick her up from the airport. Two months later, Fatima’s son, “Ali”, a single father, arrived from Iraq with his elementary-aged son. Ali, who had worked in military special forces for 8 years, was now relegated to factory work. Money was scarce. Each time I visited the family at their apartment, their demeanor continued deteriorating. There were problems with Fatima’s medical insurance. Because of her extensive health problems, she could not afford the medication for her asthma and high blood pressure. In April, I joined Fatima at the hospital when one of her asthma attacks left her too weak to walk up the flight of stairs to her apartment. In June, I tried to call Fatima and Ali to check on them. The phone was shut off. Their neighbor told me that they had abruptly moved back to Iraq.
Finally, meet Jazmin, my Iranian friend. She is Muslim. She married a non-Muslim, so to continue living in Iran equated to prison. Jazmin has been living in the United States for 6 years. While her English is good, she feels a deep loneliness at being separated from her extended family. Her daughter is constantly bullied at school. Jazmin does not work, so she has plenty of time to brood in their 1-bedroom apartment about how their lives have come to a halt. Jazmin’s main goal now is to ‘find happiness’. She said she may divorce her husband and return to Iran with her daughter.
These real-life examples are not embellished. I do not share them as a means to ‘smear’ refugee resettlement or the refugees themselves. I believe that the American public has a right to know of the challenges we face as a nation over not properly understanding the importance of cultural assimilation in the lives of refugees. My volunteer work has taught me that integration into a local community is essential for the success of a refugee placement. I did the best that I could with the women mentioned above, but integration is a two-way street. It goes back to the questions in my previous post that I believe must be asked of prospective refugees: Will you be willing to adjust your lives to Western society? Will you promise to learn English as quickly as possible and integrate into your local community? Refugees must understand that if they are not willing to do these things, it will be a long and lonely road for them. We can promise safety, but we cannot promise happiness.
For Americans who are pro-refugee and in favor of allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States, here is a tough question for you.
Are you willing to be more than a public voice for refugees, but also a friend and advocate- which requires a sacrifice of your time?
My suggestion is for you to use the energy you have currently been spending on pro-refugee social media posts to instead contact your local refugee resettlement agency today and find out how you can make a difference in the life of a refugee that is already here.
If Syrians are permitted to immigrate to the United States, what will our response be?
We have to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that our country may soon see Syrian refugees arriving.
If Americans are not willing to welcome Syrians into their communities, can these refugee placements be considered a success?
Will we- 1 year or 5 years down the road- see an influx of Syrians determined to make their way back “home” after our country has spent billions of dollars in the initial vetting and resettlement process?
Can our government brainstorm any alternatives for the Syrians that could keep them in closer proximity to their home country so that those who prefer to return to Syria after the war can feasibly do so?
My hope in volunteering with refugees is that they will become thriving, successful American citizens that contribute to making the United States a stronger country. Without a doubt, most of the refugees I have met are hard-working, hopeful, grateful people. Their children are thankful to be receiving an education and many of them have high aspirations in life; to become a doctor or nurse is a common goal that I hear. America is the land of opportunity, but sadly for some, we are the land of loneliness. Syrian refugees who have already arrived in the United States battle isolation and financial and cultural hurdles. One of them described his new situation in Baltimore with these words: “For me, everything is blackness.” My hope is that President Obama will consider my plea to carefully weigh all of the ramifications of welcoming in a traumatized people group that 1) may not be welcomed by their neighbors and 2) may not have the capacity to fully assimilate without extensive intervention.
These are complex and deep questions that deserve deep thought. Honestly, there are no easy answers. Everyone has an opinion. I look forward to hearing yours.