When crisis overwhelms some people, they react with dignity and grace. The best qualities of such people rise to the surface, while the worst are submerged. The best of humanity rose in the people of New York City as they experienced a horrendous tragedy. Unfortunately, a similar dignity and grace did not emerge in our American leaders at the National policy level.
While a call to emergency was understandable, an unthinking and irrational exclusion of refugees was not necessary. The borders of America were seen to be at risk, and after a two-month freeze of refugee admissions to this country, dark tendencies in the American governmental psyche began to emerge.
Almost no refugees entered America for five months after 9/11, even though none of the terrorists were refugees. Lavina Limon, executive director of Immigrant and Refugee Services of America, said she was "sympathetic to the need for vigilance in admitting people to the country. But someone who wants to come into the United States to inflict harm will be unlikely to take the refugee route, which usually involves spending some time living in a refugee camp, often on the margins of existence. If you wanted to come to this country as a terrorist, coming as a refugee has to be the stupidest way to come" (NY Times, 10/29/01).
It might give comfort to some people to defend this exclusionary policy as an aberration caused by a terrorist act, but given the twenty-year-long exclusionary policy against refugees, this is no aberration.
We can read the statistics together and weep. As the number of refugees around the world increased in the last twenty years, our admission numbers shrank to an embarrassing level. In 1986, the US refugee quota was 200,000 people. It decreased to 140,000 in 1988, and to 100,000 in 1994. Last year, the quota was 80,000 and we admitted only 68,000. President Bush signed a Presidential directive on November 23, 2001 setting the refugee quota at 70,000 for 2002. With almost no refugees entering the US for five months after 9/11, we will be fortunate to reach 50,000 admitted in 2002.
It is instructive to put more of a personal face on these numbers. When the US froze refugee admissions on October 1, 2001, approximately 20,000 refugees had already been pro-cessed. This means that most of them have survived in a refugee camp for two to five years (some ten years), during which they had at least five serious interviews with different levels of government resettlement. Failing any one of these interviews dooms a refugee's chances. Conditions in the camps are grim at best: the refugees are confined, the living space is minimal, food is slim and some camps are dangerous because of their border location. The majority of the refugees
are women and children.
Sometimes tragedy softens and deepens the heart of a culture that has suffered loss. There
is recognition that our experience of suffering is
not unique, and our understanding of the suffering
of others grows into a reservoir of profound
Is our suffering worse than the 8,000 men executed in Sebrenicia, Bosnia, or the loss of 200,000 in Southern Sudan, or the maimed from Sierra Leone? People who have survived those massacres and cannot return to their countries because of fear of persecution are waiting. They are waiting to be welcomed, and for a refugee, this waiting is not an inconvenient delay; it is an endless series of life-risking moments.
It is not just the lives of the refugees at stake in this refugee policy. We are also holding the spirit of America in our hands. When a country does not live up to its noble myths, its integrity is eroded. While there have been disappointing gaps in our generosity to refugees throughout our nation's history, there have also been shining moments. The rich human texture of our national community, combined with the contributions of those diverse peoples, have made us better. Welcoming a refugee makes both parties grow and flourish.
Please write Congressman Walsh or Senators Schumer and Clinton (100 S. Clinton, Syracuse NY 13261) to ask them to appeal to the US State Department to keep its promised quota, and open the door to the 70,000 refugees who are waiting for a better chance to live.
Pinyoun works with the refugee community in Central New York.