Interview with ‘Seeking Refuge’ co-author Matthew Soerens
by Noor Hindi
Three weeks ago, I foolishly suggested to my dad that we go camping. He slowly set his black tea down on our coffee table, raised his eyebrows at me, and then let out a long sigh. In Arabic, my father’s native tongue, he said, “Noor, I was a Palestinian refugee for most of my young life. I lived in camps that entire time. No.” At that moment, I understood the lack of camping trips growing up and my father’s annoyance at my suggestion. My father and I have lived very different lives.
I was born in Amman, Jordan. If it weren’t for my Palestinian father being resettled as a Palestinian refugee to Amman, I wouldn’t have been born. If it weren’t for my family immigrating to the U.S, I wouldn’t be in Akron right now. This is all to say that if it weren’t for refugee resettlement programs like World Relief Akron, so many opportunities would be lost to people like my father and me.
That’s why I was so excited when World Relief Akron Volunteer and Donations Coordinator Rachel Stoneking introduced me to “Seeking Refuge,”which I couldn’t wait to read as a practice of compassion through education. In a phone interview with co-author Matthew Soerens, he laid down some important facts about the current refugee crisis.
Noor Hindi: What are some of the challenges you faced while co-writing Seeking Refuge?
Matthew Soerens: Well, we had a pretty short timeline to write the book. Frankly, even a year ago, refugee resettlement was not very controversial. It had broad bipartisan support from Congress. World Relief has been resettling refugees throughout the United States since the late 1970s, and I’ve talked to colleagues who’ve been around since then, and even they can’t remember a time when it was such a political controversy. That changed so quickly last fall that we felt that there was a need for resources to answer some of the questions that people had. [People] needed a resource to explain the screenings, the vetting processes for refugees, the economic dynamics, and more than anything, something that that would put a human face on this big issue. You hear things like there’s about 21 million refugees in the world or about 70,000 refugees resettled in the United States, and frankly those numbers don’t mean very much for a lot of Americans. But when you know someone, have seen their face, heard their story, it becomes a personal issue.
And one thing that’s unique about World Relief is that we are a faith-based organization. So we wanted to help the people who share our Christian faith perspective and challenge them to be thinking first and foremost from that perspective and what our faith would call us to do, which we believe is to respond with welcome and hospitality.
NH: Why do you think the refugee crisis became such a political controversy last fall?
MS: I don’t know if it would have become a political controversy has this not happened in the context of a long, drawn-out presidential election. You had elected officials or people pursuing office who had a strong incentive to find an issue that would generate a lot of fear. And in the context of terrorist attacks in Europe, and then a terrorist attack in California, none of which to the best of our knowledge actually involved any refugees, but which occurred, and were very, very horrific. I think that generated a lot of fear among a lot of Americans. And refugees were a convenient scapegoat even though if you look at the facts there’s not really a rational reason to think that refugees are likely to become terrorists or to be terrorists. In fact, we have more than three million refugees who’ve been resettled in this country since the late 1970s and none of them have ever committed an act of terrorism in the United States.
NH: Do you think this fear is especially prevalent now because of the upcoming election and the statements Republican nominee Donald Trump has made?
MS: I think Mr. Trump is not the only candidate who’s made some strong statements on this but he may have made the most outrageous statements. He’s repeated the statement that the U.S has no process for vetting refugees. And that’s not true at all. That’s not half true. It’s just totally false. Our government and the state department, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI has a very thorough process for screening refugees. [And] most Americans probably have never known about it because it’s something that’s not related to them directly. But that process isn’t new and it’s been in existence for a long time. And it’s been improved over the years since the late 70s when we first started having large numbers of refugees come in through the U.S refugee Resettlement Program.
And it’s a vetting process that has a really strong history. So to say that we don’t have a process or we have no way to vet people from a particular country is just not based on any actual facts. [I also] think that’s one of the challenges in the resettlement agencies that are helping serve refugees. [They] have a hard time responding to these critiques which become such a big part of the national discussion.
NH: Great points! I noticed that the book dedicates a chapter to helping communities better welcome refugees to their cities. What are some of the challenges refugees face when resettling, and how can communities do a better job at helping them transition?
MS: Most refugees are incredibly grateful to this country for having received them. And they’re also very strong, resilient people. They’ve gone through horrific stuff. But with that, there’s a lot of healing that has to happen when they get here both from past traumas and also from the challenges of cultural adjustments. And that’s where we think the role of the local community is so vital. I’ve heard many refugees tell me that the thing they most need is a friend. A friend who understands the culture in a place like Akron, who can help them understand how the bus system works, how grocery shopping works, or banking. Or even mail. When you get a letter that says you’ve won a million dollars, that unfortunately, you probably didn’t win a million dollars. All of those things are things that most of us who have grown up in this community know how to navigate, but if you’re entirely new, you need someone to help you understand those dynamics.
NH: How does this book help address the fear that many Americans feel when thinking about the refugee crisis? Concerns revolving public health issues, and safety seem to be dominating the current discussion.
MS: Our goal is really to present the facts and let people make up their own minds on how they want to respond to them. But there are a lot of facts that are relevant to those discussions. For example, if you look at public health concerns, there is a screening that every single refugee is required to undergo with a medical doctor before they’re allowed on the airplane to make sure that they do not have any sort of contagious disease. And if they have any sort of disease that could in any way send a public health threat, they are treated and no longer contagious.There are safeguards there to prevent any sort of disease from spreading. Likewise, there are processes in place to look at the terrorist dynamic. We make sure we know who’s coming in and their full biographies. Our government not only interviews each refugee individually, often many times, but we’ll also interview other people who could have a kind of witness perspective on their story. And because the U.S is only resettling one half of one percent of the world’s refugees, our government can be very picky. If there’s any doubt on any case, if there’s a question, if there’s a potential red flag, they’re not going to be allowed in.
NH: Did you say that the United States is only taking half of one percent of the world’s refugees?
MS: Yes. There are 21.3 million refugees according to the United Nations last year, and the U.S is set to admit 85,000 in this fiscal year.
NH: Aren’t we planning on taking more this coming year?
MS: 85,000 is more than the 70,000 we accepted last year, and the state department has announced their intentions to bring in 100,000 in the upcoming fiscal year. That will be on Oct. 1. Now, obviously the State Department will be under the direction of a new president as of Jan. 20, so all of that is a little bit up in the air. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president has a lot of discretion in determining how many refugees, if any, are admitted to the U.S. The president has authority to set that ceiling. So if he or she wants to set it at 200,000, like we did in 1980 when we had 200,000, they can. Or if they want to set it at zero, they could do that as well. So there’s a lot at stake with the election.
NH: And what are the benefits of bringing in a lot of refugees?
MS: Well, first of all, a lot of refugees is a relative thing. Because even if we went back to 200,00 in a single year, like in 1980, that’s actually a small percentage compared to the U.S. population. But if you brought in a number like that, I think our economy would benefit from it. Refugees and other immigrants are not just workers. They are also consumers. The foreign-born population in the U.S. is about 13 percent of the population. And it’s probably fair to presume that they’re buying 13 percent of the cars, and 13 percent of the iPhones, and 13 percent of the hamburgers, and [that they] pay 13 percent of the rent. All of that goes back into the U.S. economy. Most economists will tell you that it’s very difficult to sustain the growing economy with a shrinking population. And because we tend to have not very high birth rates in the United States, at this point, it’s what we would probably have if it weren’t for immigrants and their kids. That includes refugees, and refugees are only a small part of the total immigrant population.
NH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
MS: I would say I was really impressed with the community of Akron. Just the way that for many years, they’ve received refugees, especially Bhutanese refugees coming out of South Asia.