Writing to the Governor about Refugees

This morning I heard on the news that more European countries are closing their national doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to travel from Greece to new homelands to the north.  I won’t even begin to assume the weight of what these European countries are facing with hundreds of thousands needing help and support.  But I do feel confident that the response to say “no refugees” and “none can be vetted effectively enough” might as well be a retelling of the Good Samaritan story where a helpless, injured man clinging to life is lying by the side of the road and several people with the clear ability to do something on his behalf choose to pass by and rationalize that he’s not their problem.  But the man is there, dying, until someone decides to help in spite of differences and possible enmity.  He is desperate until the Samaritan accepts the fact that stopping to help will cost time and finances, not even knowing what will happen in the end.  He will continue to languish and die until a stranger decides something must be done to get this man to safety.

Last week, I decided to write our Governor since Oklahoma is one of the states that is NOT allowing refugees from these two countries to be resettled here.  My big argument is that we certainly should be able to help some refugees and that helping no one is immoral and lacks courage.  Among the 4 million refugees without a homeland, there has to be some who we can confidently help regardless of safety concerns.  There are multitudes of victims from the Syrian conflict and ISIS who have been abused, maimed, intimidated, or their families destroyed.  I’d like to know why we can’t at the very least help orphans and widows, families who have been stranded in refugee camps for years, or Iraqis who put their lives on the line to help the U.S. military.  Certainly, we could find some among these groups who we know we must help because it is the right thing to do.

Here are the bullet points I sent to the Governor:

It’s a crisis of historical proportions and history will judge our response.  The number of adults and children who have had to flee violence and persecution in their homelands has never been higher in history. According to World Relief, there were approximately 20 million refugees without home or homeland in our world as of last year, and 4 million of those were Syrians who were forced to leave their country. At a Human Rights First Media Briefing Call on January 19, Syrian and Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he “cannot think of populations that have suffered more and longer than the people” of Syria and Iraq.

Over 99% of refugees in the world in 2014 were not resettled. This will be the history lesson future generations will study and decide if we were willing to take a compassionate risk or chose to allow fear to paralyze our leadership, and if our inaction actually helped the cause of ISIS in spreading an ethos of fear.

Rescue of the stranger is at the heart of God’s story and the American story.  Christians believe that God rescued us when we were still strangers to him. This is the compassion we have been extended by God and the story we are called to live into if we say we love God. This is what our faith requires:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…Matthew 25:35

Safe refuge is at heart of the American story too, extending a strong hand of hope to the tired, poor and “huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free.” These refugees yearn for a rescue from the horrors of a five year civil war and they need a bridge between their loss and their future. We have been that help before. Why not be the ones who help again?

Our path will either be courageous or fearful.  Allowing some well-vetted Syrian and Iraqi refugees to resettle in Oklahoma through the strenuous U.S. screening process is the courageous response to a serious threat in our world.

  • The U.S. government handpicks the refugees who resettle here, and our resettlement screening process is the most rigorous in the world.
  • Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people to come to the United States, undergoing interagency screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense, National Counter Terrorism Center and multiple intelligence agencies, including biometric checks, forensic document testing, medical tests and in-person interviews.
  • According to an op-ed on November 24, 2015 by Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, our greatest security concern should be the more than 4,500 foreign fighters from Europe and other countries who have traveled to Syria to join the jihad. These individuals have tainted ideologies and the travel documents to move around freely in the world.

I am weary of the discussions based on fear.  According to Kelly James Clark in a blog article on huffpost.com, death or injury from an intimate partner, a domestic extremist, or even a dog is a far greater risk in our country than the fraction of risk presented by the 784,000 refugees who have settled in the U.S. since 9/11.

Resettlement is working in other places.  Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Murray Sagsveen serves on the board of Lutheran Social Services in North Dakota, and they are receiving refugees from Syria and Iraq. In the same Human Rights First media briefing call mentioned earlier, he shared that this board heard incredible reports of success among Syrian and Iraqi refugees. These families are reported by employers as “model citizens,” many of who have doctoral degrees and long for a homeland in which to work hard and contribute, as well as provide a safe place for their children to learn and grow.

Our response to the needs of helpless people in our community and world should be compassionate and strategic.  We don’t need to be naive or unaware of risks, but neither can our only response to this crisis be to close our hospitable doors. These are game changer moments and it’s in our Oklahoma DNA to offer the generous hand of compassion. We are part of America’s pioneer heritage – a people who moved west and took risks. This is a powerful opportunity to pioneer a different response to a tremendous need in the world . So, we urge you to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program and allow our state be a welcoming place for refugees who are fleeing the very violence and conflict we condemn.

Let the conversation start for World Refugee Day on June 20.  Please allow the conversation to start and please talk to governors and first response leaders in states where accepting Syrian and Iraqi refugees is working. World Refugee Day is June 20. It would be incredible to take some decisive action by that day. This is an historical calling in which we will witness change in the world because we allowed the vulnerable to come and surrounded them with our faith, hope, and community.

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