I look out the window, noticing darkness approaching as the interview comes to a close. One long white light mounted on the twelve-foot ceiling illuminates the living room. The four walls are bare and painted white. The paint is peeling, with yellow and brown stains tracing the walls into the corners in the room. A faint smell of must and dirt lingers in the air.
Standing up from the couch, we thank Gamal and his family for their kindness and hospitality. I hear my name as I make my way towards the door. Maryam*, their 5-year-old daughter, steps in front of me and plants herself in the frame of the door. She looks up with a determined face and asks, “Why are you doing this to us?”
The United States government is willing to use bombs to attack Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian forces, but is unwilling to open its borders to the victims of his atrocities. This is not only ironic, but cowardly.
Last month, I traveled to Jordan for four weeks to study the international refugee crisis with a group of Duke University undergraduates. Here, we interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees, listening to their life stories of love, resilience, hope, and loss. Each anecdote gave insight into their lives, focusing not on persecution but on personhood. The narratives we heard were all unique and complex, contrasting the tales of hate and terror we see so often in the media. We interviewed refugees to learn who they are as individuals, not as statistics. We asked questions like “Can you describe your typical day?” “Can you say something about your values?” and “What are some of the seven most significant moments in your life?”
Through these interviews, we heard stories of people who have overcome incredible constraints and refused to submit to their circumstances. Maryam, the confident girl who asked, “Why are you doing this to us,” dreams of attending medical school so she can one day take care of her sick mother. Badour, a 24-year-old Iraqi widow, seeks to open an informal bakeshop to support her family. Mustafa, a 50-year-old Syrian father, spends his day working as an electrician for free because he can’t do it legally as a refugee.
We listened to teachers, lawyers, artists, police officers, and accountants. We spent time with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children whose only hope of a future lies with the citizens of countries such as ours. As a nation, we must be kind and empathetic enough to welcome them in.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In 2016, the Obama administration set a goal to resettle 110,000 refugees in the United States. The Trump administration, however, recently lowered that number to 50,000. Roughly 80 percent of those refugees have already been resettled in the first three months of 2017. As result, The State Department has been left to determine the fate of 10,000 based on vulnerability.
There are three durable solutions for refugees: voluntary repatriation, resettlement, or integration. None of these are viable for most refugees. As Gamal said, “We are living here, suffering here. Our lives are suffering.” Refugees live a tenuous existence at the discretion of the government that permits them to remain in their country. Refugees lack opportunity, not drive; they lack support, not work ethic.
According to officials at the U.S. embassy in Jordan, refugees are the most vetted group of people to enter the United States. Refugees undergo a process that often takes an average of two years of interviews and security checks before they are approved to enter the country.
On March 29, the U.S. district judge in Hawaii, Derrick Watson, extended the halt of Trump’s travel ban. The latest ban is a revised version an executive order that bars people from six Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. The ban rejects people who lost their homes and livelihoods without the legal ability to try and rebuild. Our government looks to reject people like Gamal, who said, whose only wish to go to be in the United States. This order is a betrayal of our American values. It denies our history as a nation of immigrants and our core tenets of freedom, self-determination, and justice for all.
We can no longer be apathetic. By sharing the stories of the refugees we interviewed, our team hopes to help change the narratives surrounding the international refugee crisis. We hope that their experiences will encourage people to pay better attention, be empathetic, and demand more from our peers and elected officials. The refugee quota must be increased. The ban must be stopped. More funding must be given to the State Department and United States Agency for International Development to help refugee communities at home and abroad.
Maryam, a 5-year-old girl, had the courage to stop and tell us that we, as citizens of the United States, are not doing enough. What will it take for us to act?
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This article was originally featured in The Huffington Post. Reporting for this article was contributed by members of the 2017 Duke Immerse Team at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, including Sara Evall, Sloan Talbot, Louden Richason, Isabella Arbelaez, Idalis French, and Josie Tarin.