“Refugee” has suddenly become a dirty word in the U.S.
President Trump’s recent refugee ban has put a negative focus on refugees from around the world. Ugly anti-refugee Facebook memes have become ubiquitous. The fog of hatred is thick in political debate.
That’s because many Americans, especially those who seem to hate refugees the most, have never met a refugee. Most don’t know the difference between a refugee and an immigrant. Their hatred is in the abstract, a vague “us” vs. “them” mentality even when they don’t know who “them” really is.
To better understand the refugee issue at the ground level, I went to nearby Comer last week where Jubilee Partners, a Christian service organization, has been welcoming refugees to the U.S. since 1980.
In that time, Jubilee has helped resettle over 3,700 refugees from 33 different countries. Most, if not all, have become American citizens.
Jubilee tends to specialize in refugees who come from rural areas and who may not have as much education or skills as refugees who come from urban environments.
There are seven houses for refugees to live in while they’re at Jubilee, along with day care services, preschool and adult and children classes.
Typically, refugees will spend two or three months at Jubilee learning the basic skills needed to survive in the U.S. From there, most go to the City of Clarkston near Stone Mountain, a town that has a large refugee community.
Clarkston offers affordable housing, public transportation and access to jobs, said Jennifer Drago, our host at Jubilee. But about 45 former refugee families have also resettled in the Madison County area.
Drago introduced me to three former refugees who came to America from Burma several years ago. Although they now speak English, these women continue to take classes at Jubilee.
I asked them how they became refugees and ended up in rural Northeast Georgia.
They said they were part of a minority ethnic group in Burma known as Karen. Burmese soldiers came into their villages and forced them out during that country’s military regime. They first fled into the jungle for a month, but eventually made their way to a large refugee camp in Thailand.
That camp provided basic services like food and medical care, but the refugees aren’t allowed to leave the camps to work. Nor could they return home to Burma without risking their lives.
One woman said she only began thinking about coming to the U.S. after her young daughter got seriously ill. After nine years of living in the Thailand camp, she and her family were allowed to come to the U.S. as refugees. Here, her daughter got the kind of medical care that wasn’t available to her in the camp.
All three women I spoke with have become American citizens (a five-year wait and costing $700) and continue to live in the Madison County area. They bought houses.
Their children attend area schools. Their husbands work in nearby poultry plants. They and their families have become productive American citizens.
And they are lucky.
It’s not easy for many refugees to get the right paperwork to apply for refugee status. In many rural villages, there are no birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc.
I asked these three former refugees what they thought about the four-month ban on refugees announced by Trump two weeks ago.
“I don’t like it because many people are ready to come, but when Trump said they can’t come anymore, they’d already sold everything,” one of them said about approved refugees who had left the camps for preliminary training programs in Thailand before coming to the U.S.
The people she was referring to have been caught in the middle. They have valid refugee visas, but no place to live while they wait and see if their refugee status will be honored by the U.S. government.
Three other women refugees and their children are currently at Jubilee from the Congo. As is typical, these new arrivals spend two or three months at Jubilee before being resettled to Clarkston. One mom and her children were scheduled to move to Clarkston the day following our visit.
We met three of her school age children in a small classroom at Jubilee. These three girls were being prepared to attend American schools, a concept that is very foreign for many refugees.
The day before our visit, the kids had been taken to Comer Elementary School to see how American schools are organized. They had their photos taken in classrooms, the lunchroom, gym, office, playground, etc. They showed me the photos and read aloud tag lines their teacher had prepared for them.
Once enrolled in a public school in Clarkston, these children will first be given intensive language instruction before they move into regular classrooms.
By all accounts, the Northeast Georgia community has always been welcoming to Jubilee and its refugees. The Methodist and Baptist churches in Comer hold citizenship classes for Jubilee refugees. And the group’s leaders say the community has always been willing to help refugees — the organization’s 38 years of success seems to bear that out.
But here’s the strange thing: The same community that has been so accommodating to resettling refugees for so many years heavily supported Donald Trump for president last November, a man who has openly disparaged refugees.
Which perhaps goes to show that it’s easy for us to belittle a group of people in the abstract, but when it’s people we see and know personally, it’s different.
“Refugees” aren’t a group, they’re individuals. They have names. And they each have stories of how they were driven from their homes and had to flee their native lands.
Visiting Jubilee Partners last week was a refreshing reminder that even amid all the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric we hear, there are still good people who extend Christian charity to those being persecuted.
I think there’s something written in the Bible about that.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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