When faced with terror, most people will do whatever is necessary to save their lives and their families. For refugees, staying or returning home has been made impossible by events outside their control, leaving them with no choice but to flee their homes and face whatever challenges follow.
Unlike the political rhetoric that we’ve heard in the past few months, we as a country should never turn our backs on refugees and Seattle should remain a leader in accepting refugees into our community.
Since the United Nations passed the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.S. has received the largest number of refugees of any nation. We do this because we are a nation built by people that were born outside our borders: 98 percent of U.S. residents are either born outside the U.S. or descended from someone who was.
Over the years the United States has welcomed refugees from the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Laos, Somalia, Iran, Cambodia, Cuba, Iraq, Ethiopia, Burma, Romania, Afghanistan, Liberia, Poland, Sudan, Haiti, Eritrea, Hungary, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Rwanda and more. Our role has helped millions of people survive unlivable conditions in their home countries.
No one would choose to be a refugee. Refugees do not make plans, save money, or carefully consider what to bring with them. A refugee’s journey begins with confusion and fear, endures hardship and trauma, and still may not end in a secure life.
Refugees have survived war, starvation, violence, oppression and deprivation. The journey to safety may last hours, days, even months or years. There may be little food or water along the way, while trying to hide from violence or watching loved ones die.
Those who make it to a refugee camp find respite and hope for safety, but it can also mean years of waiting and uncertainty while living crammed into makeshift housing. Camps may have food and clean drinking water provided by humanitarian aid agencies, or residents may have to trade, steal, lie, or buy food on the black market to feed themselves and their families.
Camps sometimes sprout up in places where nothing else will grow and no one else chooses to live. Many countries that host refugee camps are already struggling to care for their own citizens and do not welcome camps within their borders. Camp residents often experience harassment, exploitation, robbery and rape.
These are not conditions that anyone would willingly choose.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that one in every 170 persons in the world has been uprooted by war. Yet less than one percent of refugees worldwide are permanently resettled to a third country. In 2014, for example, out of more than 13 million UNHR-classified refugees, the U.S. resettled nearly 70,000: more than half of total resettlements, but only half of 1 percent of the worldwide refugee population.
Refugees represent a tiny fraction of the overall U.S. population: 70,000 refugees equal one refugee for every 6,000 people, or approximately .022 percent of the total U.S population.
U.S. immigration history is sadly filled with efforts to exclude people based on their background, from Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, and turning away Jewish refugees during World War II, to building walls along our southern border. Those now calling for rejecting Syrian refugees, or excluding Muslims from entering the U.S., or turning away women and children fleeing violence in Central America, are they themselves in the U.S. only because the door was open when they or their ancestors arrived here.
Refugees’ influence locally in the Seattle area, King County and our state is visible in the vibrant array of businesses, foods, arts, celebrations, sports, and languages that infuse our region. More than half of the refugees resettled in the Puget Sound are entrepreneurs with their own businesses or organizations, including those that support other newly arriving refugees.
We have the room in our cities and towns, and in our lives, to welcome those in need of safe refuge. If we allow ourselves to offer a bit of empathy and compassion for the shared struggle of being newcomers in a new world, we can choose to leave the door open as well. No one should be turned away.
Seattle is a trailblazing city and so much of what makes it innovative and progressive is the vibrancy and diverse culture brought here by immigrants and refugees. It is obvious our city values this by the numerous organizations and programs that support, empower and give pathways to success for immigrants and refugees. We have The Seattle World School that welcomes immigrant and refugee youth of all education and language levels and provides them with the skills to be successful in a new country. We have work readiness and job training programs to help adjust adults into career pathways that allow them to support themselves and their families.
Of course, there is always more we can do, but Seattle is a strong example to what cities in the United States should be doing. We as a city should continue to stand strong in the face of anti-refugee sentiment.