What about the refugees?

St. Mary’s High School graduate of 2008 Angela Wells shared information about refugees garnered from her work as a communications officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome and throughout East Africa for four years. She now works at the Institute for International Humanitarian Affairs. 

Refugees are forced migrants who leave their homes because they are fleeing persecution which their own government cannot protect them from or that their own government perpetuates, this can be a war - like in the case of Syria - or it could be government abuses - like forced military conscription in Eritrea - or it could be individualized persecution on the basis of religion, political belief, etc. 

There are about 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, which is more than during WWII (when the US also refused to let in thousands of Jewish refugees), of which about 20 million are refugees - meaning they’ve been displaced over their own national border. That is one in every 113th person. Half of all refugees live in cities and more than 80% live in the Global South (or developing nations).

Only one percent of all refugees worldwide ever get the chance to be resettled to a third country. The US takes a fraction of that one percent from diverse countries around the globe- ranging from Myanmar to Congo to Somalia to South Sudan.

Refugees are referred by the UN to international governments for consideration for resettlement based on their vulnerability. So only those who have serious safety concerns are ever considered.

The rest live in limbo in their second country, sometimes they manage to get enrolled in schools or work but many times financial restrictions and government policies don’t allow them to be active members of society. The average refugee is displaced for 17 years but I know people who’ve been displaced for nearly 30 and some who go back and forth - living at home until war breaks out and then living in a nearby country until things settle, this is especially true for Sudanese and South Sudanese.

Being a refugee is no longer a temporary situation while an emergency ends, it has become a way of life in which many people lack dignity or opportunity. People leave when they have no other choice, when they’ve stayed for as long as they can. 

The US refugee resettlement is a drop in a massive ocean compared to the amount of people who are displaced. Even so, many people draw an immense amount of hope in the fact that one day they may get the chance to come to the US, it frankly keeps people alive. The idea that maybe one day they can work, their kids can study and they can start their lives over is what allows people to wake up every morning and find a way to persist through extremely difficult existences.

To give you an example, just this morning I talked with a refugee activist who said that a 25-year-old in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya attempted suicide. He was scheduled to go to the US soon and he felt so desperate that he resorted to ending his life. 

Other countries could also easily follow in our footsteps and say that because we aren’t allowing refugees in, neither will they, which could instigate a lot more conflict and human rights abuses than we already have in the world today. We are often the model country and if we lose that respect for human rights, it could lead to more insecurity globally.

As we have seen in Storm Lake, immigrants help our communities prosper - economically, culturally, socially. Our kids get to live in a safe small town but surrounded by people from all over the world. Refugees add to that diversity and they have a lot to contribute - many of them come to the US with concrete skills that our economy can benefit from and they make our communities culturally richer.

It is also a moral issue. If we decide this is no longer something our country values, then I think we need to look inside and ask ourselves if human lives are really disposable? If the answer to that is yes, then that is what future generations will remember us for. I don’t think most Americans are ready for that to be our story.