Politics

Hosting Refugees Has Taught My Family What America Is

It’s easy to feel depressed about our country right now, but my guests have reminded me of an important truth.

Need for asylum in America
Syrian and Iraqi refugee families walk through Central Park in New York City on April 21. Trump has made it clear he’d like to reduce how many refugees the U.S. admits.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

The crowd gathered at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29 was loud and raucous. Protest signs were held aloft, and chants of “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here” filled the concourse. Among the throng were my 14-year-old son and me. For us, President Trump’s initial travel ban hit close to home.

As volunteers with Catholic Charities, a resettlement organization in Portland, Oregon, our family hosts refugees who arrive before permanent housing has been secured for them. When the president issued his executive order on Jan. 27, we were preparing to welcome a young woman from Somalia. She made it to Oregon only after a federal judge blocked the order, which would have prohibited citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Somalia, from entering the U.S. In the weeks since, the Trump administration has attempted to modify the ban to make it legal, but on Thursday, the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction against it. The majority opinion in the case explained that the ban “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”

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Attracting less attention on Thursday was another decision, announced without fanfare by the State Department, revoking Trump’s restrictions on the number of refugees permitted to enter the U.S. during the 2017 fiscal year. President Trump has sought to halve those numbers, from an anticipated 110,000 to just 50,000, a portion of his executive order temporarily blocked by a federal district judge. Both the judicial and State Department reprieves are temporary. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he would like to reduce the number of refugees our country welcomes. His 2018 budget may be largely symbolic, but it reaffirms his desire to lower the number of refugees admitted to 50,000 and slash funding for federal programs that assist them. In a nation proud of its immigrant heritage, this feels especially callous, a blow to refugees, the caseworkers who help them navigate their new lives, and the volunteers who welcome them, like my family and me.

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It was a random email that got us started hosting refugees. We’ve always been mindful of the Jewish mandate to welcome the stranger, and as the world’s refugee crisis swelled, our congregation’s rabbi had challenged us to get involved. My husband and I put our names on an email list but then let the demands of work and parenting supersede our impulse to help. That changed in July, when an urgent message arrived in my inbox, passed along by someone from our synagogue. An Iraqi family of five, a single mother and four children, was arriving the next day. The apartment arranged for them wouldn’t be ready for another week. Could anyone offer temporary housing?

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I thought about this woman, a mother like me, coming so far alone with her children, and I remembered the Muslims who welcomed me into their homes when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco 25 years ago. Our house is far from spacious, but we have a spare room. I still speak a little Arabic. So I called and offered to host the family.

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Late the next afternoon, a van pulled up to our door and four kids spilled out, hustled along by their mother, a short woman with dark, tired eyes framed by a green-and-white head scarf. We met on the walkway to my house. B (her first initial, to protect her privacy) embraced me and kissed my cheeks. We held on to each other, two middle-age women crying in each other’s arms. As we walked into the house together, I was struck by the enormity of what she had accomplished. Less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled. B had managed to become one of them, fleeing her homeland, keeping her children alive, navigating the strict two-year vetting process. Now she would begin again, a stranger.

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B and her family stayed with us for a week. By the time their apartment was ready, we’d admired each other’s family photos, shared homemade pizza, and laughed our way through communication mishaps (the word for good in Moroccan Arabic means bad in the Iraqi dialect). My kids and hers played basketball and computer games together, establishing ties that have deepened over the past year.

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Before B’s visit, we’d interpreted the commandment to welcome the stranger metaphorically, fulfilling it by writing a check to a local nonprofit. After, we understood that we had something more concrete to offer. Since then, we’ve signed on as volunteers and unfolded our guest-room futon for families from Congo, Iraq, El Salvador, and, most recently, Somalia.

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Each family is different, but here’s what we’ve learned: Welcoming strangers can be awkward. There are language barriers, unfamiliar mores, food gaffes (note: do not serve oatmeal). No one fleeing their homeland expects to be billeted in a strange American household on arrival, and every refugee feels uncomfortable about imposing.

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We’ve learned other things, too, like how to say tomato in Kinyarwanda, why Iraqi kids are terrified of black cats, and how astonishing the variety of tropical fruit in Central America is. We’ve lit our Shabbat candles with Muslims and Christians, and spent evenings passing a tablet back and forth, trading Google images of Oregon’s Crater Lake and summer berry harvest for photos of Congolese volcanoes and Middle Eastern delicacies.

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It’s later, in the quiet moments, that the stories come. Alone in the kitchen with me, a mother speaks haltingly of fleeing the drug lord who threatened to kill her children. A man explains that after his visa arrived, he told no one, fearing for his life until the moment he and his family boarded the plane. A couple describes their 22-year wait in a Ugandan refugee camp. At first I struggled to respond, aware that my words would be inadequate. But words, we’ve come to understand, are not the point. What matters is the listening, the bearing witness—the quiet handclasp that says, I hear you.

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Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned to set aside our impulse to cynicism, just a little, and to view this country the way our guests do. Because no matter their nationalities or their stories, the refugees we’ve hosted share one thing: an unshakable faith in America. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, one of our guests, an Iraqi who risked his life to serve the U.S. military as an interpreter, reminded me of exactly this. “Americans care about other people in an incredible way,” he told me, describing how a group of Marines turned their back on a dangerous checkpoint to aid an injured young girl. “Anyone could have shot at us, but those big guys didn’t think about that.”

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It was from those soldiers that the interpreter formed his vision of America: a place where people show up on time and keep their promises, a generous country with unbribable officials, tolerance, justice. A place where a motivated guy like him could find a warm welcome and a job, and raise his son in peace.

Now, with the lifting of the State Department’s quotas, agencies like Catholic Charities will once again begin welcoming refugees. But if Trump’s plans become policy, thousands of families like the ones we host won’t get a chance here. In the best-case scenario, they will be admitted by other countries; in the worst, they’ll linger in refugee camps; fall victim to the violence in conflict areas, such as Syria; or perhaps choose to make the perilous journey to Europe.

It’s difficult to feel hopeful in the face of those scenarios. But the airport protests, the federal judges blocking the travel ban, and the State Department’s announcement give me hope. Hope that the interpreter is right about America, after all, and that we’ll eventually live up to his expectations. Isn’t that the country we all want to live in?

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