More Than a Number: The U.S. Must Lead by Welcoming Refugees

By Colin Raunig

There’s a striking moment in “To Breathe Free,” a seventeen minute documentary about a Syrian family resettled in the United States.  You see sheer gratitude on the face of a refugee. A Muslim, Syrian father (who is not identified by name) is saying thank you to the Christian American family that helped with their transition to America. He is grateful to be out of danger, and out of the refugee camp in Jordan, but he is also grateful for the relationships both families have built together.

“Merritt, I swear, she is like a sister to me. And her husband, Armin, is the best,” he says. He is speaking about Merritt Groeschel, a co-chair of the Refugee Resettlement Task Force of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. When we hear the mean say this, we see his wife talking with Merritt and we see him in the car with Armin. Then we see both of their families’ children eating cake and cookies together.

Last week, President Donald Trump set the refugee admissions goal for fiscal year 2018 at an all-time low of 45,000. This is the lowest level in decades, despite numerous national security and foreign policy experts calling for at least 75,000.

But refugees aren’t just a number. They aren’t an abstract problem in a far-off land. They are real people who we share more in common with than we may think. They are families with hopes, fears, and dreams that have been forced from their home. They have overcome unimaginable challenges to reach safety. As a veteran, I am proud that our nation has had a strong historical legacy of welcoming the world’s most vulnerable to our shores. This tradition represents the best things about this nation: freedom, human dignity, and opportunity. .

We are undergoing an unprecedented global refugee crisis, the worst since World War II. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that 65.6 million people have been displace worldwide, 22.5 million of them designated as refugees. This migration crisis is due to poverty, persecution, and war. While the refugee crisis isn’t limited to Syria, five million refugees come from there. The people involved in these crises aren’t criminals or terrorists—they are victims seeking refuge.       

The Trump Administration’s cap would have you believe otherwise. On September 22, the administration announced a revised travel ban, broadening its original executive order with broader restrictions on six majority-Muslim countries and bringing the total number of banned countries to nine. Syria was included on both lists. Trump says that these countries haven’t done enough to prevent terrorism, but the people fleeing these countries are the very people targeted by terrorism.They need our help.

In the film, we also meet a former refugee, Loan Phan Nguyen, whose generous spirit is a testament to refugees. Loan is the second co-chair of Refugee Resettlement Task Force of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. At age six, she flew with her family to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. When they landed they were greeted by members of the CCPC and helped with their transition to America. When the church decided to help with the Syrian refugee crisis, she knew she had to get involved.

“It really doesn’t take much at all,” Phoan says during the film. “All it really takes is an opening of your heart for someone else. It’s about loving your neighbors as you love yourself,” she says. “Whether they’re neighbors across the world or just next door, it’s just about connecting.”

We, as a country, need to do more. We can do more. The top refugee-hosting countries in the world neighbor conflict areas like South Sudan and Syria. This is in part because people want to stay close to home so that they can return to their lives as soon as it is possible, but returning is not an option for everyone. And these host countries are not wealthy enough to provide basic resources for such an influx of refugees—they are economically strained and their infrastructures aren’t up to the task. You can’t make America great by abdicating our global humanitarian leadership role. We betray our most fundamental ideals when we slam the door on refugees.

The debate about refugees often devolves into partisan politics or criticism directed towards the president’s Twitter antics. “To Breathe Free” puts a face on the people that often get lost in the conversation. We must remember that it’s not about us, or about Trump. It’s about refugees worldwide—families displaced from their homes and under threat of violence—who this decision will hurt. Families like the one in this film, who yearn to “breathe free.”

Colin Raunig is a Navy veteran who lives in Fort Collins, CO. He is finishing an MFA program at Colorado State.