Opinion

How we treat refugees says something about us

Immigrant and refugee students work ahead in summer program, learning about butterflies

Video: A summer program, the English as a Second Language Newcomer Academy, is helping new immigrant and refugee students learn English and prepare them to tackle the coursework they’ll facing in the upcoming school year. One group at Lakewood Ele
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Video: A summer program, the English as a Second Language Newcomer Academy, is helping new immigrant and refugee students learn English and prepare them to tackle the coursework they’ll facing in the upcoming school year. One group at Lakewood Ele

Scott Phillips can talk about the numbers in his work, but he’d rather tell you about the people.

As director of the North Carolina office of the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, he understands that too many zeros become overwhelming.

Instead, Phillips shares the small, important stories of the child who arrived as a refugee to Wake County less than a year ago but recently excelled in a school play. Or the former client who founded his own nonprofit to help refugees and immigrants with employment services. Or the Committee colleagues who came to this country as refugees and now help others as their life’s work.

But the statistics matter, too, like how every couple of days, worldwide, the number of newly displaced people approaches the population of Chapel Hill.

New policies have capped how many refugees the U.S. will accept at 45,000 this year, down from 85,000 in 2017, and across North Carolina in 2018, agencies may see one-third of the 2,000 people who were resettled here a year ago, a number that had already dropped significantly from 2016. Most of those who have come to our state as refugees in the last decade have made their homes in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte.

Our church has walked with four such families in the last two years. We have played with their children, eaten in their homes, sat with them through sadness and joy.

Meanwhile, this country’s philosophy of refugee resettlement has devolved into a scarcity model exacerbated by a dose of adult-strength stranger danger. America is, shamefully, on a path to accepting fewer refugees than at any point since 1980.

“Refugee resettlement should not be a partisan issue. It’s a humanity issue,” said Phillips, who works in Raleigh. “These are people who are looking for safe haven and some place they can achieve self-sufficiency. The level of hateful rhetoric, the disinformation, the misinformation is hurtful to individuals as well as to the overall scope of the (resettlement) program.”

Those who come to the U.S. are closely vetted over the course of years, allowed here only after it is determined that they cannot safely remain in their home countries. Once resettled, over time, they contribute more to the economy than the initial cost of services when they arrive.

Even if the numbers did not work to American advantage, even if Foreign Policy 101 did not make clear that burgeoning displaced populations ultimately impact us all, we share in a fundamental responsibility to advocate for the vulnerable. A recent Pew Research Center study found that almost 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants felt the country does not have a responsibility to accept refugees. Such a position not only ignores Christ’s teachings, it ignores his origins.

Our parish has been fortunate to partner with other churches as well as with secular organizations. We've tried to be a welcoming presence to people who arrive at RDU carrying everything they own and with no reasonable expectation of ever returning to their country of origin.

Whether as advocates for better policy, as volunteers in the office, or through direct engagement with families, Philips said the community sets a tone through its involvement with our newest neighbors. “The success is richer, deeper, more meaningful, when we all work together," he said.

World Refugee Day is June 20. These are some of the North Carolina organizations helping refugees make a home here: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; Church World Service; World Relief; Interfaith Refugee Ministry; and Lutheran Services Carolinas.

Community columnist Aleta Payne of Cary is executive director of Johnson Service Corps, a community of young adults committed to social justice and spiritual growth.




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