welcoming the refugee

I work with refugee women and their families at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. We were asked by Reuters to provide one of several “expert views” about refugees and the incoming presidency. The piece we are a part of can be found here. What follows is the complete piece I submitted to Reuters yesterday.

The words immigrant, refugee, Muslim, walls, and terrorism have ignited fear, hostility and division throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle. The refugee communities we work with at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta, Georgia, arrive to the U.S. from countries where conflict, war, persecution, killings – and terrorism – have torn them from their homes, their families, their cultures and everything they know.

In spite of the images we are bombarded with of boats packed with people off the coast of Greece, or long lines in a camp in Lesbos, a refugee is not an abstract identity. Refugees are people who had homes and careers, who studied in universities, fell in love, built families and raised children with an eye toward a better future. They hoped for the same simple things we strive for as Americans.

In their home countries, they are no longer safe. When they arrive in the U.S. and are resettled in Atlanta, we do everything we can to not only ease the transition to life in America, but also so that they know they are welcome here. With limited funding from federal and state governments, the resettlement budget per person is extremely tight, and the months they can receive support are few. Most refugees receive help finding work in often-dangerous food production or manufacturing jobs, even those who bring medical degrees or doctorates from their home countries.

Our clients bring with them the traumas of all they have experienced and lost – homes that have become rubble, spouses who have been killed, chronic or terminal illnesses they have contracted from all they have suffered. Our job is not only to help them adjust to their new lives so that they can gain social and economic self-sufficiency, but to help them begin the long process of healing.

Refugees are scared right now. Their safety and future here feels more tenuous, and the messages they have heard throughout this election have in many cases revictimized and retraumatized them. They are concerned their missing family members won’t be allowed to join them in America. They fear they will lose their green cards or be deported. Like their American counterparts, they worry about how they will get health insurance, whether they will be able to go to college, if their food stamps will be lowered, if they will lose the social security disability coverage they began receiving after an injury at one of the local chicken factories where many of them work.

There must be continued funding at the state and federal levels to support the work of both large and small refugee organizations nationwide. These organizations must be well-staffed to provide a continuum of care that supports the range of needs of all members of a family – not just for the first 120 days after their arrival.

As providers of this support for refugees, we look to the presidency of Donald Trump and his administration to remember that we are a nation of immigrants, and that our diversity is not our weakness, but what makes us strong. For 130 years the Statue of Liberty has stood as the symbol of our welcoming shores for all those who come from tyranny and oppression. The nations of the world are watching to see whether we will open our doors to welcome refugees into our democracy. Our hope is that the incoming presidential administration – supported by the legislature on both sides of the aisle – will retain a spirit of inclusion that makes refugees feel not only welcome, but safe.

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