Following the recent abhorrent terrorist attacks in Paris by extremists, fear has spread throughout our country, largely in part due to misinformation. And this fear has generated, rekindled, and exacerbated feelings of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism within our communities towards our neighbors.
The individuals who committed these acts of terrorism were part of a small fraction of people claiming to be Muslim; and have subsequently, wrongly, come to represent an entire group of people. At this critical juncture, we should be uniting as a community. Instead, people with a political platform are spewing hateful rhetoric that only deepens our division. It’s shameful and unconscionable.
As a humanitarian and staff member at Freedom House—a Detroit based organization providing comprehensive services to indigent survivors of persecution from around the world at no charge—hateful rhetoric doesn’t sit well with me.
So let’s clear a few things up: a “refugee” is an individual outside of her/his country of origin who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership within a particular social group and is unable or unwilling to avail her-/himself to the protection of that country.
As it relates to the United States, the term “refugee” often refers to resettled refugees, or individuals who have already proven to meet the aforementioned definition prior to arrival. Such people have gone through a rigorous vetting process complete with extensive background and security checks by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as thorough health screenings—a process that takes well over 18-months.
Once in the U.S., these refugees have a legal protected status and are entitled to eight-months of mainstream public assistance through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. They also receive a work permit upon arrival, social security number, and are eligible for state identification. While support mechanisms are in place, their journey of perseverance is far from over.
At Freedom House, we help asylum seekers. The term "asylum seeker" is by definition the same as a refugee. However, they apply for protected status while on our soil. To that end, they are not entitled to any of the aforementioned benefits, services, or documents that resettled refugees receive.
Asylum seekers like refugees come from all over the world. They come from countries desecrated by corruption and violence, where presidents have been in power for decades, where you’re gambling with your life to support another candidate, and where it’s literally illegal to be LGBT (e.g. Uganda, Syria, Jamaica). And they are people who in the face of danger courageously stepped forward in the name of democracy in their respective countries.
Reaching safety is unquestionably the ultimate end goal for asylum seekers and refugees and the allure of the “American Dream” gives them hope for a new beginning. To deny Syrian, or any other, refugees this dream is to deny them hope for a new beginning and their inherent dignity and human rights.
We are a country founded by people fleeing persecution – people who today would have been asylum seekers or refugees. And in the days ahead, we hope that our fellow citizens continue to withhold America's legacy as a place of compassion and refuge for all people, regardless of one’s nationality, religion, political opinion, race, or sexuality.
I know it’s possible. I see this compassion every day at Freedom House, and I urge you to see compassion within yourself.