It Is Un-American To Reject Refugees

They need our help, not our hostility.

01/28/2017 06:31 pm ET
Andrew McConnell for Catholic Relief Services
Sean Callahan, president and CEO for Catholic Relief Services, spends time with refugee children along the Serbia and Croatia border during a trip overseas. 

U.S. President Donald Trump signed a new order on Friday largely limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and temporarily suspending all refugee programs. This devastating and unfortunate action comes at a time when migrants and refugees need our help more than ever. A time when a vulnerable population already running from hate and violence in their home countries is asking us to have their back, to lend a hand.

But measures like this executive order by the administration do the exact opposite of this. They aim to rid society of terror, not understanding that they’re hurting the very people trying to escape that terror. That by shutting people out, they’re separating whole families, changing the course of so many people’s futures and condemning innocent humans to a dire fate.

Already, people are being turned away at airports. It’s been barely 24 hours.

And all of a sudden, the people my organization, Catholic Relief Services, helps every day are being deemed a security threat, so much so that aid workers like us are left struggling to do an already testing job.

Chris McGrath via Getty Images
A young girl looks out a bus window for members of her family after fleeing fighting in Mosul, Iraq on Nov. 7, 2016

The reason for this measure we are told is to ensure that terrorists do not slip through our asylum and immigration systems. A suspension such as this, the administration claims, would allow for screenings to be modified and strengthened.

But there’s a fundamental problem with restrictive orders like this and the premise on which they are based.

To deny entry to the United States to people fleeing violence and terror in their communities ― people who have undergone intensive security screenings ― betrays one of our foundational identities as Americans. It is in America’s DNA to be a beacon of hope for those suffering under oppressive regimes.

In fact, refugees seeking to enter the U.S. from Syria are already subjected to a rigorous screening system that often takes two years. They are interviewed and their backgrounds are examined by various agencies and government entities in transit countries, and again by the U.S. ― one of the most detailed and careful screening systems imaginable. Now, all Syrians are being shut out indefinitely?

The tragically ironic message of this executive order to these victims of terror is this: you cannot come here because you might be a terrorist.

We do not oppose further strengthening of this screening system, but we know that U.S. authorities can both keep Americans safe and welcome refugees. And we reject the notion that the resettlement system must be suspended as the system is strengthened.

Are terrorists active in the countries targeted by the executive order? Yes. And their victims are residents of those countries ― Syrians, Somalis, Iraqis, Iranians, Yemenis, Sudanese and Libyans. Not Americans.

So many have fled that terror seeking safety. Yet the tragically ironic message of this executive order to these victims of terror is this: you cannot come here because you might be a terrorist.

But let me present you with the other side so you can understand why the people from these seven countries need our compassion, not our fear.

Kirva Horvath for Catholic Relief Services
Khaled Basheer, his wife and their four children fled Syria after their home was bombed. 

Meet the Basheer family, one of the 1.25 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and Europe Catholic Relief Services has helped.

They left their hometown of Aleppo, Syria a couple of months ago when bombs destroyed their house. Khaled, his wife and three children survived the blast, but their residence didn’t.

They lived in a tent for over a year, each day fearing more attacks. The incessant gunfire and explosions and the thought of what the terrorists could do to them drove  Khaled and his family to leave.

“We were very frightened of an attack by the [Islamic State],” Khaled said. “We heard such horrible stories [about] how cruelly they kill innocent people and rape women and young girls.”

“We were frightened every single minute,” he told us.

The Basheer family don’t have their own place yet ― they’re in a refugee camp in Serbia ― but they plan to go to Germany and build a new life there if they can.

It won’t be the same, Khaled said, but the former construction worker is determined to create something that can once again feel like home.

'We were very frightened of an attack by the [Islamic State] ... we heard such horrible stories [about] how cruelly they kill innocent people and rape women and young girls.' Khaled Basheer, Syrian refugee

And then there’s 42-year-old Hassan Zaroid.

Before the war, Zaroid owned his own business in Homs, Syria. But in 2012, he fled the country to neighboring Jordan with his pregnant wife because it had become too dangerous there. He watched as the life he had built for his new family was ripped away from him in a moment.

“I was happy. I had a house. I had a car. But then I lost everything,” Zaroid, who now works for our partner, Caritas Jordan, said.

The refugee center in Zarqa has given Zaroid a new sense of hope and purpose even in spite of losing everything.

“I’ve gotten better. I’ve started seeing other people who were worse off than me,” he said.  “Through my prayers to God I feel optimistic that tomorrow will be a better day.”

Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services
Hassan Zaroid fled Syria in 2012. He lost everything he had worked for. 

It’s the experience with refugees like Zaroid and Basheer who continue to give back all that they can that leads us to strongly object to what we have read in the executive order.

These are humans just like us. They are the type of people who would make great citizens, great neighbors. They aren’t monsters looking to terrorize America. We trust them, and you should, too.

The United States was founded over 240 years ago as a nation of immigrants, many of them refugees fleeing religious persecution. In the years since, the United States has been a beacon of hope for millions seeking freedom and opportunity.

And 74 years ago, Catholic Relief Services was founded to help refugees from the violence of World War II. We have worked to build on the ideals of our faith and our country as we seek to help the poor and desperate around the world.

We should all work to further this American heritage, especially at a time when turmoil has forced over 65 million people from their homes, more than were displaced after the war at our opening.

These are humans just like us. They are the type of people who would make great citizens, great neighbors. They aren’t monsters looking to terrorize America.

They need our help, not our hostility.

Walling ourselves off from the world – whether with barbed wire, bricks or visa denials – is not going to solve this problem. Instead, we must work together to bring peace where there is fighting, to bring security where there is violence, to bring prosperity where there is poverty.

In Matthew 25, Jesus told us to “welcome the stranger.” Pope Francis said “there must be no family without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity.”

Applying a religious test to determine who should be assisted ― or allowed ― to come to the United States is not what the Gospel teaches us. It’s not what America teaches us. We assist people in need because we are Catholic, not because they are.

The inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty says, “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.”

Those are the kind of executive orders that we should be following.

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