Beyond the politics: Refugees deserve open arms, not closed doors
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For years now, you have been hearing a lot about refugees, particularly from the Middle East. The volume has been turned up to a deafening roar since the Executive Order that put a halt to the entire refugee program and to any entry into our country from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

But here’s a question: Have you ever met a refugee from one of these countries?

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Have you ever sat down to talk with one, whether in a refugee camp in Jordan, a crowded tenement in Cairo, a transit center in Europe, or even a spare apartment in the United States? We have.

Our groups come from a variety of faith traditions to work with refugees around the world, helping them survive some of the most desperate circumstances in our world right now. Regardless of whether they are Muslims or Christians and Yazidi or Zoroastrians, they are people fleeing horrific violence, trying to save themselves and their families.  When they come here as refugees, they pass through an extreme vetting system taking two years and involving 13 Federal agencies.  

You would think this would be a depressing task, supporting people in such straits. But we can tell you that it is the opposite — instead of enervating, it is energizing. Sure people who were forced from their homes by violence can feel downcast — who wouldn’t? – but the refugees we meet every day are amazingly resilient and hopeful. Glad to be alive, they look forward to figuring out how they can make a new life.

Take Hanadi who was a perfume maker in Damascus, Syria until heavy shelling destroyed her home and her husband’s barber shop. They sold their car — their only substantial possession — to pay for plane tickets to Cairo for themselves and their children.

Hanadi started making perfumes again, selling them in a cosmetics shop she set up in her apartment. “In the beginning it was so hard for us but now we are adapting,” she said.

Now, she says, “I feel like I can do anything, and that nothing is impossible.” Like most parents, she wants even more for her daughter, that she can achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer.

“My favorite part of running my business is earning enough money to cover all my children’s expenses,” she said. “Despite all of the hardships we’ve suffered, our kids keep us going.”

Then there’s Mohammed who saw 30 years of work destroyed when a bomb hit his Damascus-based engine repair shop.

“I was one of the most sought-after businessmen in Syria for my industry,” Mohammed said. “I was so proud of my work. I was so happy. I didn’t have any financial problems.”

Mohammed and his family — his wife, four sons and his mother — traded their five-bedroom villa with a pool in Damascus for a cramped apartment in Cairo.

“It is painful to leave the country where you grew up,” he says. “When we were leaving, I cried for two days.”

But then he wiped his tears and started a new shop. He’s now quite busy.

“I want to rescue my sons. To guarantee them a good lifestyle,” he said.

How can you not be moved — not to tears but to a smile — when you meet such people?

Or take Malak, a Syrian woman who fled her home in Syria and is now a teacher in Turkey.

“It was always my dream to be a teacher,” she said. “But, this dream is to be with children back in Aleppo.”

Instead, she is teaching Syrian children who, like her, have lost their homes and are living as refugees. Many lived through violence.

“At first, every single child would draw planes or guns or tanks,” she said.

One of Malak’s lessons has her start a story and then let the children continue it, each adding something.

“They love to create a story with a happy ending,” she said.

That is what we all should be working for -- giving refugees stories with happy endings. They are people like us who want to work hard, who want to raise their children in safety.

They deserve our open arms, not a closed door.

In this time of political discord and demagoguery, it is easy to be discouraged, to think that there is nothing we can do. We understand that feeling.

But these refugees have bounced back. They can be our inspiration. Listen to what Mohammed said about his ability to repair engines: “No job is impossible for me. I can fix everything.”

So can we. Let’s get to work ensuring that people like those we have met can continue to find safety and security here, while contributing their gifts to our society.

Sean Callahan is the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services. Rick Santos is the president and CEO of IMA World Health. Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief. Linda Hartke is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Anwar Khan is CEO of Islamic Relief USA.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.