Refugee Resettlement: Balancing Compassion With Discernment


Refugees from DR Congo enjoy lunch at the Weatherly house one Sunday after church. Photo courtesy of Saul Young, Knoxville News Sentinel.

I have been a volunteer with a refugee resettlement agency in Knoxville, Tennessee since January 2014. My family and I welcome refugees to our city by taking them to get their Social Security cards or medical screenings and I teach ESL one day a week. We have also welcomed refugees into our home for meals from many different countries over the past 22 months. We have done our best to befriend these newcomers to our city so that they will have the best possible chance to be integrated into American culture. I want my children to have a compassionate heart for persecuted peoples and people of all nationalities.


Unrest at a European train station

Over the course of the last few months as the migrant crisis in Europe escalated, I have found myself in a state of anxiety about what the future may hold for Western Europe. I have friends and family in Germany who are singing a different tune today than they had been last year. In January, when I asked their opinion about welcoming refugees, they seemed very open to assisting them. Now, they said their whole country is being changed and they are worried that Germany will not be able to cope. When I see YouTube videos uploaded almost daily by regular citizens showing brawls in migrant camps or of heated protests between Germans over the refugee crisis , I feel anguish. Some of these refugees who have fled persecution in the Middle East are expressing heartache that the very violence they fled has followed them to Europe because of the open borders.

My own feelings towards refugee resettlement are being transformed before my very eyes as I struggle with what I know to be morally right: ‘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!’ Yet, my greatest prayer is for my own children to grow up in a country that is secure from the threats and terrorism that we see in the Middle East. As a mother, how can I deny this same hope to a Syrian mother? 

parisMy heart has become in even greater anguish because of the turn of events over the past week: Paris attacked by terrorists possibly from many different countries. And in the wake of that, thousands of Facebook users changed their Profile Pic to that of France’s flag colors. I changed my Profile Pic in solidarity as well. But not everyone stands in solidarity with France. An Iraqi refugee family that has been living in the U.S. for 18 months (father, mother, 2 grown sons, 2 high school sons) that my own family befriended chose to change their Profile Pics to the colors of the Iraqi flag. Under one of the grown son’s profile pic, his mother (a woman that I have shared many dinners with) wrote in Arabic: ‘Go to hell, America. May God curse America and Israel to hell.’ I replied with a warning to use great caution when making online curses against a country that has taken them in, provided them with refuge, financial assistance and free education. Up to this point, there was no indication that there were any negative feelings toward the U.S. I took them to be very friendly, engaged, thankful refugees.I am still in shock over the French attacks and over my “friend’s” post. Because of all the emotion and confusion I’m experiencing, I deactivated my Facebook account, but not before screenshotting this damning post and reporting it to the refugee resettlement agency. 

syrianRefegees2_2374507bWhat are my thoughts now about allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the United States? Six months ago, I would have rolled out the red carpet for them. Now, I am hesitant. I believe that we need to use extreme caution about who we allow in the United States if we want to continue living with freedom and pleasant ease. We need to include difficult questions in the vetting process, such as: What are your thoughts on American culture? Will you be willing to adjust your lives to Western society and teach your children to value our values? Will you promise to learn English as quickly as possible and integrate into your local community? And maybe one of the toughest questions to ask of Muslim refugees: What is your prayer for Israel? Some may cry that this question is too personal and unfair, but I believe it cannot be ignored. Why is it important to ask this question? If a Muslim cannot suppress his hatred for Jews, then he should not be permitted to immigrate here. To live in a modern, welcoming society, all nationalities and religions must be protected and valued. If Syrian refugees would like us to accept them into our country, then they need to be ready to lock arms, neighbor to neighbor, with people groups they may have a cultural or religious aversion to: Christians, Jews and homosexuals. They don’t have to agree with those peoples’ religions and values, but they need to be willing to join this great American melting pot. If refugees cannot do this, then the United States should not be encroached upon to accept them in our midst. It would not mean that we rejected them, rather it would mean that they rejected us.

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New YorkI believe that the United States government should not downplay the anxiety voiced by its citizens regarding Syrian refugees. President Obama recently stated, in reference to many Governors wanting to deny entry to Syrian refugees: “Apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion… They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns.” Personally, I am not a politician nor do I speak for Republicans; I am speaking as a concerned mother who would love nothing more than to continue offering hospitality to persecuted refugees, trusting that my government’s scrutiny in refugee vetting has ensured my safety. I am not attempting to drum up unnecessary fear to advance a campaign. There are not many Americans who can say that they have opened their home to share meals with Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans, as my family has done. We are not naive to the dangers that Islamic extremists have carried out and continue threatening to carry out. Having a sympathetic heart towards the persecuted is heroic, but demonstrating collective discernment towards the admittance of refugees promotes a love for humanity even more courageous than immediate displays of compassion. We owe it to our own citizens- as well as Syrian refugees who are seeking refuge here- that this great country will continue to be a safe haven for future generations.