**Submitted 30 January, 2017.**
#GreaterAs1: Why We Should Allow Syrian Refugees into the U.S.
Shortly before World War II in 1939, the SS St. Louis arrived at Cuba carrying a ship full of Jewish, mostly German refugees seeking sanctuary (“Americans Thought”). After being turned away by Cuba, they were immediately also rejected by the United States and Canada. They had no choice but to return to Europe. Returning in June of that year, they were relocated throughout Great Britain, Belgium, France, and Holland. Following the German invasion of western Europe in May of 1940, just under half of these Jewish refugees died in the Holocaust –eighty-four in Belgium, one in Great Britain, eighty-four in Holland, and eighty-six in France (“Voyage St. Louis”).
The reasons why these people facing such great danger were turned away must be addressed. Americans had various fears regarding European Jews, particularly Jews from Germany. Some believed they could have been spies; others were fearful of certain philosophies they may bring to their country –communism, anarchism, and that of fifth column (Tharoor “Yes, Comparison”). A poll was even conducted by The American Institute of Public Opinion on the eve of World War II regarding a proposal to accept 10,000 German refugee children, mostly Jewish, into American homes: 30% were in favor, 61% were against, and 9% had no opinion (Tharoor “What Americans Thought”). While the circumstances may not have shown prejudice against Jews in particular, it still speaks loudly about how the Americans felt about refugees, even children.
It could be said that the United States is re-living history. Journalist Ishaan Tharoor suggests that “today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish Child” (“What Americans Thought”). While it is not a direct comparison, seeing as Jews were considered a “racial enemy…in German society”, he claims that there are still alarming similarities that Americans cannot ignore. Quoting the book Refugees in an Age of Genocide, he shares that “of all of the groups in the 20th century… refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as ‘genuine,’ but at the time… [Eastern European] Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy” (qtd. in “What Americans Thought”). The doubts about German Jews echo down through those about Syrian refugees –threats of spies or ideologies that are perceived “un-American” (“Yes, Comparison”). The parallels must be lessons. The voice of the slaughtered begs the world not to repeat history. In order to discern what must be done for these refugees, therefore, it is necessary to understand their situation, the positive effects on our country, and the risks they may pose. Taking these issues into consideration, America should still allow Syrian refugees to be settled here, in the name of humanity. If we turn their “ships” away, the effects will be fatal.
The first issue to address is why Syrians are in need of asylum. The civil war in Syria has been going on for more than five years, and more than a quarter million people have died (“What’s Happening”). It began in 2011, with peaceful protests by locals when fifteen school children were arrested and tortured for writing graffiti against the government. Soon, however, these peaceful protests turned violent when the government began responding with open fire. It is now being fought between the supporters of the president Bashar al-Assad and the rebel fighters who do not want him to be in power (“What’s Happening”). Those against him include the original protesters as well as others belonging to political parties in opposition to him.
What complicates things further, however, is that in 2014 the IS (Islamic State) moved into eastern Syria and there gained power and land. The Islamic State is known for their brutality and jihads, violent acts against enemies of Islam (“What is Islamic State?”). The combination of these two situations has caused approximately 4.8 million Syrians to flee to neighboring countries: 2.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon, 650,000 in Jordan and 230,000 in Iraq (“Syrian Regional”). One million refugees have requested asylum in Europe, the majority being relocated to Germany and Sweden. This, however, still leaves 6.6 million internally displaced Syrians inside of Syria (“Syrian Refugee Crisis”). Those who remain in the country believe traveling to other countries to be just as dangerous, but this requires many to move to find safer places to live inside their country. Most children who remain in Syria cannot even attend school because buildings have been destroyed and there are no teachers available (“Happening in Syria”). Whether they have fled or are internally displaced, all Syrians have lost family, friends, and homes.
The conflict in Syria is not likely to end soon. If that is the case, what countries can do for them demands to be considered. This is where the American refugee resettlement programs take their role. A refugee, according to the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), is defined as follows:
Under the United States law, a refugee is someone who:
· Is located outside of the United States
· Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States
· Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group [and does not include those who participated in the persecution of people for these reasons].
· Is not firmly resettled in another country
· Is admissible to the United States (“Refugees”)
The United States, then, has prioritized the safety of refugees to some degree, because of the important effects on the refugees as well as the American nation itself. Nowrasteh from the Washington Post voices many Americans’ opinions, arguing on the behalf of refugees, that they “want safety, not handouts.” This is one main concern of the American people, that refugees will take our jobs (Edwards). Jeffrey Sachs, economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, offers in a PBS interview that although statistics would show that refugees have been “net…positive” economically, there are still some complications (Solman). One is that their addition to the workforce may decrease wages. The second is that problems may occur if they do not have to pay as much in taxes but have access to social services. These are both possible economic problems (Solman).
However, refugees have been known in many cases to help the American economy. Sachs himself also admits that many refugees are educated and do contribute to the workforce (Solman). Nowrasteh would add that if they are skilled in certain areas but lack English, they can push lower-skilled Americans into positions that require better English communication; they also create more jobs by being consumers. Refugees do not have to receive welfare, as many refugee resettlement programs are funded privately (Edwards).
Olivia Edwards, volunteer coordinator at Church World Service in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, argues this further. She explains how no-interest loans are given to refugees by the U.S. government; these loans will be paid back by the refugee. She also shares how a study of Lancaster County by New American Economy demonstrates that “the role immigrants play in the workforce [in] helping companies keep jobs on U.S. soil… The immigrants living in Lancaster in 2014 helped create or preserve 1,062 local manufacturing jobs that would have vanished or moved elsewhere” (qtd. by Edwards). They also contribute to taxes and boosted housing value. This is the case in many other parts of the United States as well.
Such is the economic side of it. However, considering further the issue of allowing refugees into America, it is clear there is a much deeper purpose. Sachs stresses to PBS the importance of maintaining “a holistic view” of the situation (Solman). He explains that it is not just a matter of what is better or worse for the United States economically, but that it is necessary to consider what it means for the refugee and his “home” country. Although not all countries agree on an exact procedure for accepting refugees, “the only agreement internationally is that when people are fleeing persecution, fleeing for their lives, there is a human right for them to escape, and there is a responsibility for countries to not send them back into danger,” Sachs says. This also means not ignoring them because they are not wanted in “our country” (Solman).
Business Insider shares a testimony about one of the 10,000 Syrian refugees welcomed to America in 2016. “As soon as I saw the flag, I felt safe,” Ammar Kawkab shared (qtd. in Zablit). He went on to explain, however, that he began to fear American responses who believe Syrian refugees may be a threat. He begs, “…we are not here to be a burden on America. We want to give back to this country.” Such is the case with most refugees. They would simply ask for the chance to live and make a life for themselves (qtd. in Zablit).
From his more liberal perspective, Nowrasteh would argue against doubts, explaining how “our immigration restrictions are making a humanitarian catastrophe even worse by preventing them from saving their own lives. Let’s…let them [the refugees] do that while empowering those among us to voluntarily lend a helping hand.” (“Syrians Help Americans”). The bottom line is that with or without the economic benefits refugees may bring, the greater result of allowing them into our countries is helping individuals to have the opportunity to live. In doing so, Americans can stand hand-in-hand with these people who are also victims and show that the United States will not live in fear of terrorism. Instead of scattering individuals in fear, terrorism unites the world even more strongly in courage and love. America must be united in giving these individuals the opportunity to help themselves.
The greater concern for Americans, however, is that of security. This fear is that the U.S. vetting system is not extensive enough and that terrorists will slip in as refugees. Ben Carson, retired surgeon, author, and Republican nominee for President in the 2016 election, shares his view with Time. He believes Americans see “Islamic extremism through the lens of political correctness,” and although he understands not all Muslims are extremists, it is necessary to not allow terrorists to enter the American nation undercover. He is certain that terrorists will disguise themselves as refugees and that it is foolish to bring those refugees here. Coming from a more conservative view, he considers the Paris attacks as a warning to not welcome more refugees but rather defend our nation more strongly.
Republican Vern Buchanan (Republican, Florida) wrote President Obama along these lines as well, insisting for him to “…immediately stop accepting Syrian refugees as a matter of national security…We are seeing a clear pattern in which a number of recent attacks have been carried out by ISIS terrorists with ties to Syria, including [three bombing/murder situations in Germany in France]…Syrian refugees played a part, either as attackers or accomplices, in all three attacks…Terrorists are leaving Syria disguised as refugees and carrying out attacks in the West. The prudent course of action is to halt all admissions of Syrian refugees into the U.S. until the safety of Americans can be guaranteed” (“Syrian Refugees Surge”).
It is undeniable that terrorism is a legitimate threat and that many Americans view refugees as a possible route for the terrorists to enter the United States. However, Edwards also address this. She believes that many of Americans’ fears and doubts are intensified by their lack of knowledge about the vetting system nor having ever met an actual refugee. The vetting system, as she explains, is actually very extensive. It includes twelve steps, each step including a background check (criminal history, medical background, etc.). Each step also has an expiration date. This means that it takes a minimum of two years for a refugee to be accepted into the United States. However, it often takes much longer for families because of the expiration dates. She gives the following example: if a child happens to fall ill, hindering the family from continuing the vetting process at that moment, one of the steps may expire. As they return to redo that step, other steps may expire in the process. This shows the vetting system is actually extremely cumbersome, especially for families. However, it is because of this in-depth system that since 9/11, not one terrorist attack inside the United States can be attributed to a refugee (Edwards).
Therefore, considering the extensive vetting process the United States implements, the economic benefits, and the dire help these people need, only one conclusion can be drawn. Syrian refugees must be allowed to find sanctuary in America. Terrorism attempts to strike fear. Fear paralyzes. However, love and courage mobilize. It is through them that we are united and learn to put others’ needs above our desires. In the face of terrorism, with all discernment and wisdom, we must open our doors to allow these souls to live.
In the heat of the political issue, Edwards urges Americans to consider one final application. She states that “the idea of who a refugee is is… dehumanized. Most people have not met a refugee, so it becomes an issue, or point of conversation, or a political view. But in the process, what’s lost is people’s humanity. These are people who are suffering, and if I were in their place, I would pray to God someone would open their home and say: you are welcome here; you are safe here.” We must see these individuals as humans, and we must welcome them with open arms.
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