Every day we see stories of families, individuals and groups of refugees fleeing to save their lives. Some find help and a welcome in a new country, and others are turned away to seek shelter in another place or return to the nation that forced them to flee.
As we prepare to honor World Refugee Day this coming Wednesday, let’s not only remember the plight of refugees throughout the world, but also celebrate the gifts they bring to the nations that grant them refuge.
More than 65 million people have been forced from their homes due to violence and persecution in their countries. The number of families displaced and seeking refuge in other nations has doubled in the last 20 years, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Traditionally, the United States has been the most welcoming nation of our fellow humans in need. Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, the U.S. has welcomed about 3 million refugees. Many other nations have also stepped up, with Australia welcoming more than 800,000 refugees, and Canada welcoming more than 715,000 refugees – but none in the West as generously as the U.S.
True to our promise as a nation, the United States has consistently led the way in our generosity and compassion for those in need, culminating in 2016 with us welcoming nearly 85,000 new refugees. Unfortunately, as we are set to welcome the lowest number of refugees to our nation since 1980, we have lost sight of that side of our character and have begun keeping people out rather than welcoming them in.
It has been my privilege and honor to teach many newcomer immigrants and refugees here in Spokane for the past seven years and to witness the beauty they bring to our community. Students like Safa and Tara, future teachers. Tamara and Zahraa, future medical professionals. Jeff and Abdurazik, destined to be ambassadors and peacemakers. And Gafishi and Ali, just getting started at university after studying hard in high school and graduating this spring.
I get to see firsthand the focus and dedication of these newcomers to our nation. I witness their hope and their fearlessness, despite what they’ve been through in their lives. Most of all, I get to see their gratitude and their commitment to giving back to our nation for welcoming them in.
Recently, I was reminded at an event of the generosity of our United States. A woman shared that our nation has welcomed more than 1 million legal immigrants and given more than a billion dollars in foreign aid – both true facts. That is the heart of who we are as Americans and who we must ensure we actually are. In recent years, we have not been the generous nation we believe ourselves to be. Our Statue of Liberty, standing in the New York City harbor, reminds us of our true soul: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
On World Refugee Day, let’s remember who we are. The champions of those who are struggling. We have the power and the privilege to bring hope to so many in need. We have in us the promise of the American Dream, not only for those born in the United States, but for those seeking refuge, who bring with them the focus, dedication and gratitude to be productive members of our communities. It is our responsibility as citizens to ensure we are that great nation we claim to be, with such a magnanimous past, and to call out when we are not living up to our true character. When we are reacting in fear. When we are building fences and not bridges. When we are racist. When we discriminate. When we separate families simply for seeking safety in our nation. When we push out rather than welcome in.
Spokane will celebrate World Refugee Day with World Relief on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Nevada Park. Several of my students and their families will participate through dancing, cooking and sharing their various talents. Come out. Meet your beautiful neighbors. Seek to understand. Be welcoming. After all, that’s who we are as a nation.
Mandy Manning is a teacher at the Ferris High School Newcomers Center.
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