Soapbox

Refugees have the same dreams as the rest of us

Sattar Amiri, left, and other classmates listen during an after-school music program for refugee students at Howe Avenue Elementary School in Sacramento in October.
Sattar Amiri, left, and other classmates listen during an after-school music program for refugee students at Howe Avenue Elementary School in Sacramento in October. rbenton@sacbee.com

Terrified people fleeing violence and the hate-fueled oppression of extremists are seeking refuge in the one country that defines itself as standing for liberty and opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion or country of origin.

But many Americans fear the newcomers and resist allowing them in. Such was the case in 1938, when the U.S. kept out Jewish refugees escaping Nazi rule – and so it is today with Syrian refugees.

While not a perfect analogy, the comparisons are chilling – a blind lack of empathy and selective amnesia for fundamental American values. You don’t have to look far to find another example – the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Today in our nation, including in Sacramento, understandable horror over the slaughter in Paris has inspired new fear – that the Islamic State is sending jihadists to our shores disguised as refugees. But this fear must be matched and tempered by reason.

Our organizations have years of experience helping resettle refugees within the Sacramento region. We have received many inquiries from local residents concerned about refugees from Syria. We welcome these inquiries, but we are concerned that facts remain unknown or ignored about who our refugees are, and how they get here.

The U.S. has agreed to accept as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Sacramento is already home to a sizable community of people from the Middle East. Nearly all are families with children.

They include many people who left behind middle-class lives and professional careers, including lawyers, doctors and engineers. Here, they have found new lives as small-business owners and productive members of our regional economy. As a group, they are no more or less law-abiding than your average longtime resident. There are any number of reasons for this, primarily that they are decent, hardworking people who share hopes identical to our own – raising a family, making a living and pursuing a fulfilling future.

Somewhere on that list of reasons is that before arriving in the U.S., they passed a rigorous, 13-step vetting process administered by the federal government. It involves personal interviews, multiple criminal background checks and medical clearance exams. Refugees are identified and tracked at every point of their journey.

Does this process guarantee that absolutely none of these people will ever resort to violence or crime? No. There isn’t a system in place anywhere that can do that for any segment of our population, neither natives nor newcomers.

Many of us have spent time in parts of the world where people must live without hope for a better future. Providing people who have been thrown into a hopeless situation an opportunity to enter a community like ours, where they have a chance to build a new life for themselves and their children, is the best possible antidote to the terrorists.

If fear and hysteria rule the day, if we were to abandon Syrian refugees to their fate by denying them entry into our country, there is in fact one guaranteed outcome. All of us will have lost a sense of what it is to be American and will have lost a measure of our humanity. We cannot afford to let that happen.

Debra DeBondt is CEO of Opening Doors and can be contacted at debra@openingdoorsinc.org.

Kirt Lewis is director of the Sacramento office of World Relief and can be contacted at KLewis@wr.org.

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