“Xenophobia: It is not a word to be celebrated. It is a sentiment to be fought.” – Robert Reich
Refugees arrive in the United States with little more than the clothes on their back and the hope of a better life and peaceful future. As victims of war, they were forced to flee violence, pick up their lives, and abandon their home. Years of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa have created the worst migration crises since World War II. Unfortunately, the dreams of many refugees that reach U.S. soil quickly disappear when they realize they left behind a war of death and destruction only to arrive in the crosshairs of another—a war of words.
Over the course of his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump heightened the fears of many Americans and created an environment hostile towards refugees. Unsubstantiated claims, such as his assertion that Muslim refugees will bring “generations of terrorism” to the U.S., have only served to demonize refugees and misrepresent the very situation that has brought them here. In reality, a report released by nonpartisan think tank New America found that the vast majority of individuals who were charged with or died engaging in jihadist terrorism or related activities inside the U.S. have been U.S.-born citizens. Painting whole groups of people as threats in the wake of the actions of a single person overshadows the stories of sacrifice and triumph so many refugees live—and deserve—to tell.
“It’s challenging enough coming to a new country with a new language and new laws. They face so many barriers,” said Tara Hall, the Executive Director of Refugee Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization based in Georgia that helps female refugees assimilate into their news lives in America. Through social adjustment programs, leadership training, and economic empowerment services, the organization equips refugee women with the tools and strength they need to thrive in the face of adversity. “As survivors of war, they have such a resiliency and courage and strength to come to the U.S. and start their lives over again. This is something I admire about them!”
This election season, the refugee crisis has been thrown into the political arena, and has been twisted from a conversation about the desperation of millions of innocent humans to the acceptance of possible threats to national security. This politicization makes changing American’s perceptions of refugees an even greater communications challenge. Those who oppose U.S. acceptance of refugees have successfully framed the conversation in terms of “they” versus “us.” This narrative shamefully exploits stereotypes of people who may look, dress, sound, or act different. Ultimately, this misguided idea of reality silences the truth, thereby making the most vulnerable people victims of rhetoric.
So how do refugees and advocates begin to reframe the conversation away from fear and hostility and towards a message of unity and opportunity? The answer is simple: change who is telling the story. In order to shift perceptions, refugees need to take control of their own story. Up until this point, Trump has controlled the narrative. By hijacking the conversation, he has deprived the American people of the opportunity for a more informed and thoughtful consideration of current and future refugees. It is time we demand that opportunity back.
In order to do this, we must support institutions that promote the process of discussion and learning, such as the Refugee Women’s Network, which strives to arm female refugees in the U.S. with the information and skills to become leaders in the community. The organization helps women refugees become advocates for themselves, and gives them the courage to take control of their own narratives. “If we continue to educate the community and advocate for the women we work with, I firmly believe people will help and they want to help,” Hall explained.
By giving a voice to the very people so many of us are quick to judge, we can begin to create a society that welcomes broader thought and challenges people to reconsider previous misconceptions. For now, all we can hope is to instill in our nation—and our president-elect— that words and facts do matter. It’s time to start acting like it.