Turns out I'm not really a blogger but just a person who writes when she's mad. I've actually written many blogs over the last several months, trying to make sense of things I've seen and stories I've heard, but all of it felt like whitesplaining or material more appropriate for therapy, so they remain unpublished. But now I'm mad.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ever the voice of civilized discourse (also, I could just listen to her read the phone book), spoke quietly but powerfully at at the UN's World Humanitarian Day about how labels limit our ability to see others clearly:
"Nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing."
This is certainly true of my refugee friends I know. I have friends from Burma, Iraq, Sudan and who came to Texas through the refugee resettlement program. Once labeled refugees for legal purposes, they are mothers, fathers, caregivers, students, sons and daughters. A few years after resettlement, they now own homes, pay taxes, send their children to community college. They are probably better citizens than I am. Some stand out in their exceptionality. Two Sudanese brothers, high schoolers I know in Austin, are kicking ass, helping their soccer and track teams excel, winning scholastic awards and working all the while. The American dream holds far more allure for them than it ever did for me. I totally took for granted, and do to this day, that I would get educated and get a job and that things would just work out. These boys are actively pursuing the promises of America. Their black African bodies embody American values. Don't even get me started on what America offers young black men. One tragedy at a time.
Now my home state of Texas has opted out of the Refugee Resettlement Program, which feels like a punch in the gut. It feels like we Brexit-ed. It feels like I have to explain it apologetically to all the refugees I'm working with. I realize that my refugee friends and their success stories aren't representative of each and every of the almost 30,000 refugees that resettle in Texas every year (Texas being the largest re-settlement refugee program in the US). Obviously anecdotes don't counter real threats. But what are the real threats? MORE AMERICANS HAVE LEFT TO JOIN ISIS than refugees who have come to America and been found guilty of committing an act of terrorism. By this calculation, MORE AMERICANS ARE TERRORISTS THAN REFUGEES IN AMERICA ARE TERRORISTS. Is, then, opting out of resettlement truly a security concern? An economic argument? Xenophobia? Thirty thousand people written off just like that because they *might* be a security risk. Tell me what it is and I will try to fix it.
If they were doctors or lawyers, would you take them? If they were campaign donors, would you take them? What if I told you each and every one has the potential to become just that - doctors, lawyers, donors, Texans. Instead you define them by a single thing. Instead you play politics with the lives of 30,000 potential Americans.
If they are running from ISIS or the Taliban, would you take them? I can personally vouch for three young men from Afghanistan who are running from the Taliban and waiting in Bangkok in a single room day after day to be resettled. They just want to finish their university classes and move on with their lives. Trust me, their life goals never consisted of coming to my shoddy English classes once a week. One of the guys even asked me, haltingly, about security in America when he's heard that "just anyone can get a gun." HE LIVED IN AFGHANISTAN AND IS CONCERNED ABOUT HIS SECURITY IN AMERICA. This isn't an isolated concern. I've had many friends from other countries inquire about their safety in America. "But is it safe?" "Just how many people have guns?" "Do you have a gun? I thought every American had a gun."
I'm not trying to pit one against another. America is relatively safe. Refugees want to be resettled in America, and my Thai friends want to vacation in America and go see the Hollywood sign and Disneyland. America holds promise for so many. But if we hold the rest of the world at arm's length because of our supposed exceptionality, if we claim security concerns when we ourselves are dangerous, we only further point out how unexceptional and cowardly we are. Living abroad, you can't tell the signal from the noise. The rest of the world hears that America is building a wall and black men are being killed by police. And now, rejecting refugees lets the world know that we are sticking to our guns, digging in our heels and being stubborn assholes. As a Texan, I am not threatened by refugees. I am threatened by complacency and fear. Because that's what threatens my refugee friends.