Refugees are not to be feared

 

I’m a canvasser. For clarification, that means I’m a good ole’ fashioned door knocker. Yes, I’m the one who comes to your door and interrupts your peaceful family meal to ask who you’re voting for. I wish I could say I entered this field because politics inspired me, but frankly, I did it because I needed work. Having just finished a year with JVC Northwest (and unexpectedly let go from the job I had originally lined up), I was very broke and admittedly felt a little aimless. I had the chance to help an organization I loved and respected, knew the work would be more meaningful than any other temporary job I could find immediately, and – it paid well. So I signed up.

Now, I’m invested. I’ve gone from having never voted before (okay, I admit it) to actually having moments of fear where I wonder what will happen to Montana if my candidates aren’t elected. Politics has evolved for me from being an amorphous blob to a part of my identity. And along with this, I’ve come to see the political sphere for who it truly impacts: the people.

A month into the job, I knew I had become emotionally involved when I met a woman on the doors who started to chat me up about refugees. Montana is heavily divided over the issue of whether or not to allow refugees into the state, so I usually have at least one conversation about it every shift. This woman, however, had fallen especially ill to the disease of fear-mongering that gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte had been spreading like smallpox. She referred to Syrian women as “burka-wearing babes,” the sight of whom supposedly brought her to perform the sign of the cross every time she crossed their path. She made a joke about shooting the Syrian refugees who would potentially come into Montana. “They better watch out,” she chuckled, after I explained to her that most of them would be women and children. I left the house shaken up by the woman’s ability to joke about murder like she was commenting on the weather. I paused to compose myself  before the next door.

That night, I processed the conversation by venting to my boyfriend, and it was out my mind the next day. Racism from citizens is sad and hurtful , but not necessarily uncommon. That woman was easy to shrug off. However, when I met Gianforte at the Montana Association of Christians Connect conference and witnessed discrimination from the man who could be Montana’s next governor, I couldn’t forget.

The conference was an incredibly enlightening an energizing experience for me. Our keynote speaker was Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee who had lived in Montana for over 20 years, raised his children here, and currently serves as a professor and DPHHS child protection specialist in Helena. Wilmot told us his story – from starving in Liberia, to spending three days on a crowded boat with no food or water, to finally being able to find shelter in the U.S. He was articulate, positive, and showed incredible courage.

Gianforte, our other guest speaker that night, sat there and listened the entire time. He heard when Wilmot told us that starvation took him from weighing 175 pounds to 90. He heard that on the boat, every few hours there was the sound of wailing and the splash of bodies of starved refugees being thrown into the ocean. Gianforte heard when Wilmot told us that he missed the birth of his child while spending more than a year navigating the U.S. vetting process. And he heard the joy in Wilmot’s voice when he talked about finally being re-settled in Helena and meeting his baby girl for the first time. Greg Gianforte took the podium after Wilmot, and after first making sure he listed all the reasons why he should be elected, finally reached the issue of immigration. His words were like stone: “Until the U.S. has a proper vetting process in place, we should not allow Syrian refugees into Montana.”

I was baffled. Had he not just heard what I had heard? How could Gianforte say that so matter-of-factly, as if nothing were at stake, when Wilmot and his wife sat next to him? It is one thing to create ads that belittle the value of human life; it is another to belittle the life of a human you stand face-to-face with. By stubbornly and falsely claiming the U.S. had a weak vetting process, Gianforte was negating Wilmot’s experience, and, in turn, negating the significance of Wilmot’s life. After the speeches, I heard Gianforte introduce himself to Wilmot and say, “You know, I’ve been to Liberia.” What a guy, to bring the conversation immediately back to himself in a desperate attempt to to muster up some cheap empathy or false qualification on the subject.

This is the problem with American politics: There are people with lots of money. Then there are people with little money, but lots of stories. The people with stories are heard by some; the people with money are heard by all – and those people are the ones who come to power. In the end, thousands more people will hear Gianforte’s propaganda about refugees than Wilmot’s account. If I have any charge to the readers of this blog today, it is this: listen to the people who are rich in stories. Don’t take the first word of those in a position of power, no matter the party. If Gianforte’s supporters had done this, they may come to find that:

  1. Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people that come to the U.S., undergoing rigorous security screenings by the Dept. of Homeland Security, FBI, Dept. of Defense, Dept. of State, and National Counter Terrorism Center, including biometric checks, forensic document testing, medical screenings and in-person interviews.
  2. Since 1975, the U.S. has settled more than 3 million refugees, including more than 100,000 from Iraq. Not one recorded terrorist attach has been by a refugee.
  3. Refugees resettled in the U.S. pay taxes and contribute to their communities. In fact, 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants and refugees.
  4. Refugee resettlement in Montana will add only 150 refugees in 2016 and 2017.
                                                                                                           (Thanks to Soft Landing Missoula for this information.)

Refugees are not to be feared. They are to be loved and listened to. As I canvasser, I am also a stranger to people, if only for a moment. In a 30-second-or-less interaction, I feel the hurt when I get a door slammed in my face, when I am ignored or chastised.  What would I feel if I were a refugee and received the same response after fleeing from war or being separated from my loved ones? It may, literally, kill me.

I wish I could have told that woman on the door that the people she joked about shooting are the very people Jesus commands us to welcome.”Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40).” Does she know that Christ himself was a child refugee? I believe we are a nation of Christians so protective of our faith that we have forgotten the essence of Christianity: to accept The Other. I have hope that in time, we will learn. We will welcome the stranger because we have listened to their stories. This is my prayer today.

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One thought on “Refugees are not to be feared

  1. Wow. Thank you for this incisive and heart-rending story. The ethical implications and emotional substance are particularly compelling. If we all had such a great ability to see and explain the problems of our time, perhaps we would be in a better place.

    Like

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