I have spent most of the last decade deeply invested in the refugee community in Austin. I have heard dozens of stories about the moment when people realize they have to flee, whether it was from the Burmese junta, Islamic State fighters in Iraq or rival militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
That gut-wrenching choice is one of the few things all refugees have in common. For asylum seekers to be officially declared “refugees” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, they have to prove that they would be persecuted or killed for their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or gender in their country of origin.
Less than 1 percent of the 65.3 million refugees in the world are eligible for resettlement.
One of my closest friends is a refugee, and she has daughters the same ages as my little girls; we often have slumber parties together. Because her family still has relatives living in danger in Myanmar, she asked me to use only her nickname, Kying. Her story is pretty typical.
Kying and her husband had six hours to make the decision to leave their village in Myanmar. Their neighbors told them that, as members of one of the country’s ethnic minorities, they were being hunted by the junta.
They left to save their children’s lives.
In the back of the truck where the smugglers packed Kying’s family and others to cross the border out of Myanmar, she told me they stacked people like firewood.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Like firewood,” she said. She put one hand down, turned the other sideways, then turned it back and forth.
One group of people lay parallel to the floor, others were arranged perpendicularly on top of them, then parallel, then perpendicular, until the truck was full.
She told me the smell was the worst. People vomited and peed, and some died.
I thought about Kying when a group of Syrian refugees were found dead in the back of a truck a few summers ago on the side of the road on their way to Germany. I wondered if they were stacked like firewood.
I can’t breathe imagining it.
Understandably, most of my refugee friends have post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues related to the horrific stress in their home countries or their harrowing journeys before being resettled in the United States.
Those of us who love refugees have come to recognize a particular grief: It is the devastation of people who would do anything to return home and who will never be able to go home again.
Over the years, I have seen numerous families move into apartment complexes in Austin. It is the first time in months or years — for some, in their entire lives — that they can live in freedom and peace. It is a small start toward moving past their grief.
The process is like watching someone emerge from a cave into the sun.
My refugee friends are almost universally grateful for the help they’re receiving, thankful for the opportunity to start a new life, deeply enthusiastic about their new home.
The political rhetoric against refugees is hitting these women and men in profound ways.
They are afraid. After all, they know what happens when governments turn against entire groups of people.
I wish I could tell them they have nothing to fear.
I wish the newest refugees could experience what my friends who have been in Austin for several years enjoyed: a warm Texas welcome from both sides of the aisle. In a predominantly conservative state in which most people identify as Christians, taking care of the victims of war and persecution has always been a high priority.
Instead, rumors are devastating our local refugee community. They are bewildered: Why would refugees, who are the victims of terrorism and war, be confused with the terrorists who persecuted them?
Those of us who are their friends are hard-pressed to answer those questions or to explain why a presidential candidate would call Syrian refugees “a great Trojan horse,” despite repeated confirmation that there is no evidence that terrorists are coming to the United States disguised as refugees. As Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, wrote, “the refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose.”
Lubna Zeidan, who is the program director of the refugee program at iACT, an interfaith group that has offered English-language courses to Austin’s newest refugees since 2002, told me that many refugees report they are not sleeping.
As Zeidan put it, they are “already agonizing and suffering from their experiences back home. One of the things we try to tell them is, ‘You are welcome.’ ”
In iACT’s most recent community lunch, they set aside their regular agenda to address the community’s concerns. Zeidan and her staff let their English students know that, although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has declared that the state will no longer oversee the resettlement process, refugees will continue to come and things will go on much as they always have in our state.
Zeidan’s voice was warm when she told them: “There are certain groups of people who are suspicious because they are afraid, but we know that you don’t mean anybody harm.”
At that lunch, one man said to Zeidan, “We just want to be able to get on our feet and work hard and show everybody who doubts us that we are a good investment, that your confidence in us is well founded, those of you who are standing by us.”
There are significantly more of us standing by refugees in Texas and around the country than not. Resettlement agencies in Texas are reporting an enormous spike in volunteers in the last few months.
But what scares us is that there are people who are afraid of refugees, people who are capable of violence against them.
Recently, three white men in Kansas were charged in a terrorist plot. They planned to park cars full of explosives around an apartment complex filled with families from Somalia, an apartment complex similar to the one where my friends live.
Zeidan recounted a frightening experience here in Austin a few months ago. Three men shouted and shook the locked gates at the iACT building before class was open, demanding to be let in. A program assistant at iACT, a former refugee from Burundi, walked by casually; his friend, a new student in the program, told him in Kirundi that he had seen the men conceal knives in their sleeves.
The program assistant crossed the street and called the police. The men left before the police arrived.
The iACT classes spent the rest of the day in lockdown, dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of what might have been had that program assistant not kept his wits.
Our friends thought they finally found peace; after all, they are the extremely lucky ones resettled in the United States.
But as we are learning, there may be no place in the world where the victims of the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II can go to find peace.
Zeidan said it succinctly: “I’m not afraid of refugees. I’m afraid for refugees.”