I wrote this essay about refugees for a class on foreign policy. We did a service learning project and made some welcome baskets for three refugee families who recently relocated to North Carolina (a single mother with young children, a single man, and another family with some older children). This assignment was a unique one, since it wasn’t in the style of political science, but instead an exercise in empathy.

The prompt: As you assemble goods for the refugees, I want you to engage in an empathy exercise: What would you need if you were a refugee forced to relocate to a new country and culture? What would be your fears? Your hopes? How do you feel about refugee resettlement generally? 

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I think we have a duty to care for humanity… 

I have been an outsider before. I have been in the minority. I know what it’s like to walk down the street and feel everyone’s eyes following you. I know what it’s like to have your skin color speak before you do. It’s hard when everyone has preconceived ideas about how you are and who you are and why you are there when you clearly do not belong. I know what it’s like to fly across the globe with everything you own reduced to a single suitcase. Moving to a new country is wearying. Losing your entire worldeverything familiaris heartbreaking. Cultures are confusing and languages are frustrating and the sudden inability to express yourself is suffocating. These things I can understand.

But I have never had nothing. I have never lacked for anything I truly needed. I have never lost someone close to me. I have never lived with the overwhelming uncertainty of how to create a new life for myself all by myself. I have never been an outsider in a place that was potentially hostile to me because of misconceptions or misinformation painting me in a negative light. I am young and I don’t have people depending on me and I don’t have to pretend to be brave and when I am scared or unsure I always have people to help me. I have never been alone.

So I can’t begin to understand what it would be like to be a refugee forced to relocate to a new country and culture. For my body, I would need basic necessities of life like food and clothing and shelter. Something as simple as a bottle of shampoo or a pair of socks or a can of soup could be a major relief. For my heart, I would need a friend to talk tosomeone who not only listens but tries to understand. I would need kindness and compassion, words of encouragement, and a community that cares. Something as simple as a handwritten welcome or an offer to help or even a smile could make all the difference in the world.

I would be afraid to trade the known for the unknown because I wouldn’t be completely sure if the unknown would actually be better. Sometimes it is easier to stay in an undesirable situation simply because it is at least familiar. It takes courage to let go of everything you have ever known and embrace harsh and sudden change in hope of a better life.

I would hope for a better life. If I were the single man from Syria, I  would hope for a new family. I can’t imagine going through life alone, having lost everyone you loved. As the single mother of young children I would pray that somehow time would ease the gnawing pangs of loss that run far too deep for little hearts. I’d hope my children would feel safe and protected until violence was an abstract concept arising occasionally in stories and on screens. I’d wish for them to be overwhelmed with deep friendships and exciting opportunities in a world where the only rational things for them to be afraid of are spiders and the dark.

I have mixed emotions about refugee resettlement. I wish there was an easy way to get at the root of the problem so people don’t have to be refugees in the first place but I know that isn’t possible. I wish they could all relocate somewhere that is culturally similar and shares the same language, but I know that isn’t possible either. I think we have a duty to care for humanity and help as much as we are able. I hope the refugees who come to America feel welcomed and accepted. I hope they grow to love it for all its strengths and opportunities and freedoms. I hope that one day it feels like home.

It’s important to remember that the refugee crisis is far greater than political speeches, long complicated policies, and concerns about national security. The refugee crisis involves people. Souls who have suffered unimaginable grief and loss and separation and change.

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