Note: This is the first in a three-part series commemorating World Refugee Day on June 20, and highlighting the plight of refugees and immigrants during one of the nation’s tersest battles on immigration.
I recently contributed to a photo project entitled A Journey from Burma to Indianapolis: Perspectives from Burmese Refugees. This 60-page book will be released on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2012. As the contributing writer on this exciting project, I had the privilege of distilling hours of interviews into readable copy. I'm used to finding words for the stories I cover. But nothing could have prepared me for the intense accounts of the men and women behind this compelling book. Their words – and their often shocking stories – spoke volumes of the courage it took to leave their homeland of Burma and find a new home elsewhere in the world.
Today, many of these individuals find themselves in the Midwestern city of Indianapolis. Conservative estimates find that Indianapolis and surrounding cities such as Fort Wayne are now home to a population of well over 10,000 refugees from Burma – one of the largest populations of Burmese refugees outside of South Asia.
One young family featured in A Journey from Burma to Indianapolis fled forced labor and religious persecution in their homeland of Burma. Biak and Sui and their three young daughters arrived in the U.S. a year ago. But Biak remembers that moment like it was yesterday. “There are no words to describe the feeling when I had when I stepped off the plane,” he says.
Biak's feeling of gratitude and excitement for a fresh start is often expressed among refugees and immigrants arriving here in the United States. And while there are distinct differences between individuals arriving on refugee status after fleeing persecution in their homeland, and those arriving as immigrants (whether legally or illegally) seeking economic opportunities, the concept of a fresh start and the hope for a brighter future seem universal.
But unfortunately this optimism is sometimes met with negativity, hostility, and even prejudice. While the immigration debate continues, massive misconceptions have developed about immigrants and refugees in our nation. A recent study shows that the average American thinks that 39 percent of our nation’s population was born outside of the United States. The actual figure? 13 percent.
Clearly, our nation is not being overtaken by refugees and immigrants. But tragically, misconceptions like these have triggered some astonishing measures. Just this year, New Hampshire attempted a ban on refugee resettlement – effectively placing a moratorium on refugee arrivals in their state. The clear message set forth to some of the world’s most vulnerable people was “You’re not welcome here.”
New Hampshire’s refugee resettlement moratorium died in the Senate, but its passage in the House had already exposed a lack of knowledge about the United States’ refugee program – and worse, a tremendous lack of compassion for some of the world’s most courageous individuals.
Measures like these highlight the importance of a truly compassionate response to those who have fled persecution, and are seeking new opportunities in our nation. “Therefore love the stranger,” reads Deuteronomy 10:19, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In the most basic sense of the word, each of us knows what it means to be a stranger. Whether you have walked into a new social setting, a new workplace, a new community, or a new nation, you know the feeling of being a stranger – someone who doesn't know anyone, and someone that no one else knows.
When it comes to the immigration debate, let's not forget that this nation was built by men and women who fled persecution and arrived as strangers in search of a new home, people who left behind everything they had to attain the freedom and opportunity to live their lives. We have such people among us today. And I hope that we can find the courage to look beyond common misconceptions in order to find ways to express love, compassion, and a genuine welcome to the strangers in our midst.
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at [email protected].
Publication date: June 12, 2012