Three hundred and ninety-five years ago a group of foreigners seeking refuge from severe religious persecution landed in America. A group of an estimated ninety-five (native) Americans welcomed them, helped them establish a colony and found someone amongst their tribes who spoke the foreign language of these new arrivals. These Americans exhibited compassion for the struggling foreigners and worked together to provide resettlement assistance to this group who arrived with many strange customs. It was a brutal time for these Pilgrim foreigners, but the welcoming spirit of the Americans they encountered allowed them to survive what proved to be a much more difficult resettlement than any had expected.
On November 26th, our country has a national holiday with a long tradition to remember the acts of kindness, acceptance and resettlement assistance Americans provided to those fleeing their country of birth. The act of welcoming victims of persecution to our country makes up the fabric of the foundation on which our country is established. On Thanksgiving we remember, we celebrate, those Americans who saw the foreigners not as a threat to their livelihood, but rather as human beings, strange as they were, who needed help in getting resettled here in this land.
Media coverage of the recent attacks in Paris has brought the refugee crisis back to the forefront of the international consciousness. News that one of the bombers may have entered Western Europe posing as a refugee from Syria is causing many to question the long, successful policies of refugee immigration into our country. I am grieved when I hear statements from politicians, friends and the uninformed public that are willfully ignorant of the facts surrounding refugee resettlement. The fact is that refugees, especially those from Syria, are fleeing exactly the kind of terror which unfolded on the streets of Paris. They have suffered the effects of this kind of violence for almost five years, creating the largest refugee crisis since World War II. They do not bring terror with them. Rather, they are fleeing from it.
The United States handpicks the refugees who resettle here, less than one half of one percent in any given year of the nearly twenty million refugees in the world. Refugees go through multiple layers of security checks making them the most thoroughly vetted group of people ever allowed to enter the borders of the United States. In fact, in the last thirty-six years of the modern refugee resettlement program, there has never been one refugee – brought through this process- who was arrested for domestic terrorism. Instead of speaking to the fear of allowing terrorists into our country, I choose to rest in the incredible track record of our vetting process. With the heightened concerns about a terrorist passing through our security protocols, which can take eighteen months or longer, our Department of Homeland Security is vastly improving and updating the process to insure that no one with evil intent is approved for resettlement as a refugee.
Recently I received an email from a community member with a grave concern about the fact that Muslim refugees had been placed in a rental home in her neighborhood. She expressed her concern very graphically and I felt the need to respond. I expressed that I was sorry she had been misinformed. I explained the history of this Muslim family, how they fled their country due to the radical extremists who threatened their lives. I described how after seven years as refugees, this family had finally been processed and approved to be resettled in our city. I provided detailed information about the security approval process and invited her to call me with any questions. Five minutes later we were on the phone together, politely discussing the Muslim family in question. I invited her to visit them and help introduce this family to the neighborhood. Some weeks later, I was talking with this family and they mentioned they had met the neighbor with whom I had conversed. I listened with an increasing smile on my face as this newly arrived refugee family told me that she is the best neighbor. She shares fruit from her trees, helps with any needs they have and checks up on them daily. This story reassured me that when people are exposed to the truth a beautiful transformation in their attitude and opinions can take place.
This Thanksgiving, let’s choose to celebrate that our country still remembers our founding principles of welcoming the “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Mark Kadel is the Director of World Relief in Spokane, WA