(Opinion) When asked in the most recent presidential debate about the Syrian refugee crisis, Donald Trump said his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. has become a plan of “extreme vetting … because we don’t even know who they are.”
But we do know who they are.
The U.S. vetting process for refugees is already the most rigorous in the world. Refugees who are being considered for resettlement to the U.S. undergo seven background checks by national security agencies and in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security personnel. But refugees are not just threats we need to vet, nor are they simply victims we need to save.
I have the privilege of knowing who refugees are. Through my work at IRIS — Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a not-for-profit that is resettling almost 500 refugees to Connecticut this year, I interact with refugees every day. The refugees I know are not terrorists or just victims. They’re the gay man from Baghdad who shows me pictures of his cat, the Afghan single mom who does YouTube yoga, the Congolese toddler who’s learning to wink, the fisherman who Skypes with his parrot back in Iraq, the Syrian teens who text while they ride their bikes.
I first saw Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old boy whose image went viral in August, on the front page of The New York Times. I looked away, but the picture is seared in my mind: the ash-colored dust of his skin against the orange ambulance seat. The paper was on a desk next to box fans, pots and pans, in the space where we store donations at IRIS.
I didn’t even read the headline. Twenty refugees were arriving to New Haven that night. My colleagues and I were in for an all-hands-on-deck work day to prepare. We didn’t have a chance to talk about how Omran’s picture might affect our work to resettle them. But the phones at IRIS are starting to ring off the hook again—like they did last September, after the image of a drowned toddler named Aylon Kurdi brought the Syrian refugee crisis into stark focus.
I’m glad that images of Syrian children reach and move so many people. And I’m glad there was backlash against Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet that compares Syrian refugees to Skittles. But I worry that the way we consume these images, on both sides of the political spectrum, reduce refugees to objects of sympathy or of fear. We tweet and share and make memes of images that depict refugees as either victims of distant wars, or threats to the U.S., when we could be learning to empathize with the human beings they are.
Thousands of refugees — 10,000 Syrian refugees — are new Americans. Your loud neighbors. Your favorite Uber driver. That new player on your kid’s soccer team.
I got to know a group of Syrian high school students this summer by doing a writing workshop with refugee youth in an IRIS school-readiness program. One day, I brought in a writing prompt from Bill Zimmerman’s makebeliefcomix.com: “An Indonesian boy leaves a message of hope written on a paper flower outside a mosque on the anniversary of the tsunami that killed thousands of people in his province…What message of hope would you put on your paper flower?”
Explaining the prompt was a lesson in hope to me. I asked the kids if they know what a tsunami is. Another teacher drew a big wave on the board engulfing houses and stick figures. “It’s a disaster,” I said, “like what’s happening in many places in the world.” Then, I realized, I’d have to explain the difference between a natural disaster and the human violence they fled. I didn’t ask what they do when they see images of suffering Syrian children on their Facebook feeds. But they told me, in their messages of hope.
One student wrote, “I hope the people who are in Syria [can] be patient and survive. I hope the Syrians will have a good life and…get through this situation in this time.”
His friend wrote, “When I came to America I was sad. My brothers and sisters were very far away. But it gets better. Sometimes I still feel sad. Then I pray for Syria and my family and the world.”
I doubt these kids watched the Presidential debates. I hope they don’t have to see the day that their brothers and sisters can’t come to the United States. I pray they won’t have to keep seeing Syria being destroyed, not knowing if the loved ones they had to leave back home are ok.
The 100,000 children under siege in Aleppo are not just casualties of the Syrian war. Their parents are not terrorists in the making. They are people who could be your neighbors, if humanitarian action were as rampant as the posts and the shares and the memes.
At the end of the summer writing workshop, we made a zine. The title of one entry is “I miss everything.” The last page is a drawing of an elephant by a 16-year-old who wrote a list of his future hopes: “motorcycle…big house, two kids.”
Ashley Makar is the outreach coordinator for IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services). Some of the material in this piece appeared in a blog in the online magazine Killing the Buddha.