A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Overview

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

When we talk about refugees we are talking about people affected by widespread violent persecution. It is important to begin at the very beginning of these stories. That is, we need to know why people are fleeing their homes to arrive in camps or cities seeking refuge. I’ve heard criticism of refugees to the effect of “They need to fight for their country or no one will.” But, before we get to the specific countries and situations people are fleeing, which will hopefully address the criticism, there’s some important information we need to go over. I am attempting brevity on incredibly complex and decades-long conflicts so bare with me, know that at times I may oversimplify things, feel free to leave corrective or explanatory comments, and I am attaching a lot of links so if you want to learn more please do so.

While I encourage you to read each overview of the conflicts in the countries we are taking refugees from there are some things they all have in common:

  • The U.S. has worked and continues to work in destabilizing many countries we take refugees from. Our foreign policy often creates  the refugees we refuse to take.
  • Some people invest heavily in maintaining war. People profit from war. Think of the factories in which military items are made, the fuel to power the war machines, the added need for recruiters, and so on. Think of governments who skim off of smuggling. Think of the smugglers and traffickers who can raise prices during conflicts, and so on. The economy of war preys on the average human. Aid organizations, sometimes inadvertently or intentionally, simultaneously alleviate and inflict harm onto people caught in conflict. There is money to be made, political gains to won and conflict is the catalyst to make it all happen. So while most the world wishes for peace, some do not.
  • Fleeing is a life or death decision that no one wants to make, ever. Because they are alive, they are in danger. Refugees face the condition, in which their existence is controversial and they woke one day to find that strangers want to murder them for some intrinsic part of their identity or because they exist in a certain space.
  • Refugees are over 50% children. Many are elderly, women or have medical conditions that make it difficult to defend themselves. And even if they are all young, strong, healthy men, they are human beings. Every single last one is a human being entitled to safety, dignity and human rights.

American Perspective Observations:

  • Sometimes we have a hard time understanding modern civil war. The American Civil War ended over 150 years ago meaning that we are generations removed from anyone who lived through the Civil War. In the late 1800s weapons were much less devastating. New technology included hot air balloons used to get an aerial view of enemy positions, muskets taking 20 seconds to reload (for perspective Usian Bolt can run more than 200 meters in that time), swords and knives were still used and men rode horses into battle. We only know our civil war in a historical, academic way. Technology and the level of damage modern warfare inflicts goes beyond what we can gather from our own war. Our war was also straightforward in that there was little foreign involvement, and the sides were clearly defined with clear motivations. Emancipating the slaves would destroy the agricultural South. The South resented the Federal Government for dictating to the South. The North fought for Unity, Emancipation and Federal Oversight. The South fought for Independence, Slavery and States’ Rights. To compare our Civil War to the civil wars generating the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II insults the people caught in the middle and belittles so many people who have died and suffered. The civil wars in Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo along with other nations have far more sides. It is not us vs. them. It’s us vs. them vs. them vs. them and by proxy them and them and them—some of whom are not actual coalitions more like armed obstructionists or outright terrorists.
  • We have never had a modern war on our soil, so living in a war zone is difficult to understand. Perhaps my friends in the military can elaborate on this, but war is really really unfathomably terrible. Our belief systems as human beings nearly universally go against taking the lives of others. Many religions talk about the body as being a temple or sanctuary—the vessel of the divine in some way or another. Only in war are these beliefs suspended. Look at the struggles of our returned veterans. While some have peace, some certainly have mental trauma that shows up as homelessness, suicide, PTSD, random shootings, a disconnect with loved ones and so on. Our military is not compulsory which means our veterans signed up because they believe whole-heartedly in the need to protect and serve our nation. And, though I am a pacifist to my very core, THANK YOU for your service and sacrifice. Our soldiers at least intellectually understood what they signed up for, and yet, even the bravest heroes in our midst return affected by the horrors of war. Now imagine what that does if you are not a soldier, but just a child or a civilian who wants to live the only life you know.  It’s very hard for us as adults to conceptualize living in war zones, and it’s important that we try. To understand the need for refugee resettlement in the U.S. we have to try to understand what living in an active war zone means.
  • The Constitutions of other countries either do not protect people, cannot be enforced or do not offer checks and balances on power. So far, the constitution has kept us from allowing presidents to act like dictators. Power is divided to ensure no one can destroy the union or pass extreme legislation without consent of multiple branches. Not all countries enjoy this protection. Some have a singular leader whose word is law, or a rogue military that takes over the country, or terrorist groups show up one day to slaughter and rape an entire village or other situations where average citizens hold absolutely no power. A Syrian friend of mine said that when she casts her first meaningful vote in Syria we will dance from one end of Jamaica to the other in celebration.

So we will go into what each refugee is actually fleeing. The countries listed in the following posts are the countries the U.S. takes refugees from in order of numbers entering the country for 2016 based off of Pew Research. The most recent available statistics from the State Department are for the fiscal year 2015. The world of refugee resettlement in the U.S.  has drastically changed from 2015 to today so I will list the data from the State Department in addition to the 2016 statistics from Pew because 2015 saw a dramatic shift in bringing more people from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, and less people from Burma. Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) are not counted in the totals only those coming to the states on I-94 refugee visas. As a reminder, SIVs are Afghani and Iraqi interpreters for our U.S. troops recommended for resettlement by military officers. Click the links to see the history of the program in statistics and read specific stories from the UNHCR. I will cover the history of the program in a coming post in this series.


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