Who is the refugee? Who do I recognize myself to be when confronted with the refugee? How does the politicization of refugees hurt and help them? What responsibility do faith communities have to respond to this crisis? What concretely can we do to respond? These are a few of the burning questions tackled earlier this month at an international gathering of scholars, students, and representatives from the US State Department, the United Nations, and various charities, human rights groups, and faith communities convened by the Princeton University Office of Religious Life and the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The gathering’s panels and roundtable discussions ranged from topics including gender and migration, global citizenship in an era of nationalism, the religious experiences of refugees, the media and migration, and many more. In contrast with popular media coverage of immigration issues, which can often be sensationalist and fleeting, these conversations probed deeply into the history, causes, and long-term implications of the present refugee crisis. Some participants, like Jane Bloom of the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that migration was a fraught issue long before Donald Trump issued his bombshell executive order. How will these new arrivals impact US security, economics, and culture? How does accepting refugees affect relations with their nations of origin? These are the questions that every administration has to navigate in the course of fulfilling its duty to protect American interests and sovereignty.
In another sense, however, the current crisis reflects an even older problem—as old as human society itself. Recent efforts to label refugees as a threat to national security or an economic burden are just one manifestation of humans’ psychological impulse to project internal conflict outward onto others and to “otherize” fellow human beings in response to the experience of fear and anxiety. At its roots, the current resistance to refugees is not just about terrorist attacks and tax dollars. More fundamentally it is a test of our ability to respond reasonably and compassionately in the face of our inner fears and anxieties.
While conference participants clearly recognized the staggering challenges and complexity of the refugee crisis, their conversations did not devolve into despairing or unproductive hand wringing. Far from it, this well-informed and highly motivated group of people reported how their institutions have sprung into action to meet the crisis head-on and identified additional steps that need to be taken. One basic measure that numerous presenters emphasized is educating the public about refugees in order to combat the stereotypes, misconceptions, and “alternative facts” that perpetuate fears about this vulnerable and diverse group of people. For example, contrary to many Americans’ belief that accepting refugees exposes the country to greater risks of violence, studies show that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the general US population (and probably less so).
Important as it is to get the facts straight, conference participants were also realistic in their appraisal that statistics alone are never sufficient to overcome mistaken but deeply held beliefs. Salim Patel, Chairman of SMILE for Charity, emphasized the need to shape the images and narratives that form people’s moral imaginations. Patel offered the example of the image of a little boy sitting despondently in an ambulance in the middle of Aleppo covered in dust and blood. Unlike all the unmemorable statistics about the numbers of Syrians displaced and killed by the Assad regime, this image has imbedded itself in the memories of countless people around the world as an unshakable reminder of the atrocities taking place in Syria. Likewise implying the need to go beyond the mere relaying of information, Geoffrey Cameron, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, pointed to the effectiveness of issue framing in past advocacy efforts, as, for example, when refugee advocates described waves of refugees in the 80’s as fleeing communism. In doing so they seized upon Americans’ understanding that at that historical moment their nation was engaged in a global struggle between democracy and an opposing evil ideology. Are refugees terrorists in sheep’s clothing or modern day Holocaust survivors? Is the “American” thing to do protecting our shores or welcoming the “tired, poor, huddled masses” into our country? These are the semantic struggles that effect shifts in public opinion.
Other key themes to emerge in roundtable discussions were those of coalition building and “accompaniment.” In a time when our society is wracked by divisiveness, cultivating partnerships is a crucial way to ensure that unifying voices gain a hearing amidst the cultural cacophony. To be sure, politicians and decision makers are more likely to respond to advocating efforts when those efforts have the backing of multiple constituencies, for example, Democrats and Republicans; Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Taking a page out of Pope Francis’ book, Mitzi Schroeder, Director of Policy for Jesuit Refugee Services USA, and Ashley Feasley, Director of Migration Policy for the USCCB, both emphasized the language of “accompaniment”. In this context, accompanying refugees means listening attentively to their stories and needs and helping them to thrive on their own terms. Schroeder gave the example of a refugee who came to them already on death’s doorstep. When asked what he needed, the man requested a bar of soap. He had never in all his life had his own. When he passed away some days later, they found the soap under his pillow still in its original wrapping. What this man desired more than anything was not an expensive medical intervention or a lobbyist in DC but a simple symbol of human dignity, and the people at JRS only knew this because they took the time to listen to him.
While numerous presenters spoke to the potential of government agencies to alleviate the plight of refugees, it became clear over the course of the weekend that religious communities have a distinctive role to play. Feasley of the USCCB pointed out that six of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the US are operated by faith-based organizations. The USCCB alone resettles 30% of refugees entering the country. Going beyond the statistics, other presenters pointed to the particular gifts of religious communities: Geoffrey Cameron noted the capacity of religions to speak to who we as human beings should be rather than fixating upon people’s fallibilities and shortcomings. Imam Sohain Sultan of Princeton University underscored the belief inherent in our great religious traditions that every human being possesses a unique dignity as well as religious communities’ commitment to defending and giving a voice to the voiceless. Claudio Betti of Sant’Egidio noted religion’s capacity to speak to the universal at a time when isolationist, nationalist tempers are flaring.
For my own part, I would add that our great religious traditions have the capacity not only to bridge physical distances but also to rise above temporal isolation. Were more people attending to the lessons of history, to past outbreaks of nativism and fear mongering and the lamentable consequences they wrought, we would likely not be repeating those mistakes now. Policies that seek to achieve national security and economic growth by means of exclusion, isolationism, and scapegoating inevitably prove ill-conceived and short-sighted. As Mamadou Sy of Lutheran Social Services noted, we can turn a blind eye to problems elsewhere in the world now, but, if we do so, we will soon enough find those problems washing up upon our own shores. Politicians and administrations are often susceptible to the pressures and politics of the moment, but the institutional memory of ancient traditions like Catholic Christianity can and should serve as an antidote to such short-sightedness and cultural amnesia.
Having spent two days immersed in the tragedy that is the refugee crisis, one might expect conference participants to walk away frustrated and despairing. And yet notes of hope rang out session after session. Emphatically wagging newspaper clippings at the room as proof, Jane Bloom exclaimed that she had seldom seen religious communities as galvanized as they have been in their efforts to respond to the recent surge in anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. Indeed, that so many influential persons rallied to the call of the conference organizers testifies to just how much this particular social justice issue has galvanized diverse persons and communities. Likewise, this gathering of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics, diplomats, academics, and community organizers exemplified precisely the sort of coalition building many called for throughout the weekend and that is transpiring spontaneously elsewhere around the country.
To conclude on a personal note, I am immensely grateful to have been present for this extraordinary gathering. For me the recent weeks have seemed a disheartening succession of days and headlines bearing grim news of bigoted acts, vulnerable people trampled upon, and lives torn apart. To be surrounded by people of such compassion, competence, and tenacity, if only for a few brief hours, rekindled within me a flame of hope that had lately grown dim. The daily headlines may make it appear that the world is rending itself apart, but events like this one serve as a reminder that—quietly = but just as surely—people = everywhere are hard at work mobilizing, caring, advocating, and healing. It may seem a dark moment in American and world history, but the tireless efforts of such Christ-like people assure us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [will] not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
[Notes from all the conference panels and roundtable discussions will soon be available here.]