We Must Do Better!

“Sometimes it’s not that we want to break your laws,” said the handsome, blue-black Congolese man, “It’s that we do not know what those laws are!” This was one of the amazing insights I gained in attending the Eastern Iowa Refugee Summit in Iowa City yesterday. And then the young man gave us an example:

“In my country, when the police stop you, it is a sign of respect to put your hand in your pocket. (This probably hearkening back to the time-honored possibility of offering some money for a bribe). Here, they believe you are reaching for a weapon.” One wonders how many times this innocent gesture has had tragic results.

These are the kinds of insights we only get when we take time to get to know newcomers to our country, be they immigrants (those who have chosen to come here) or refugees (those fleeing persecution in the lands of their birth). And this was the unanimous recommendation of the many presenters at yesterday’s summit. The opening panel “Refugees as New Iowans” consisted of representatives from Lutheran Services, Americorps VISTA, the Iowa Department of Human Services, and the founder of EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma, Advocacy and Resource Center) in Cedar Rapids.

Workshops during the day consisted of five topics: Advocating for Refugee Children and Youth, Investing in the local economy: Refugees and Employers; Empowering You for Political Action; Becoming an Effective Volunteer and Ally; and Enhancing Health in Refugee Communities. My only frustration was that I could not attend them all!

The day concluded with a powerful address by Anesa Kajtazovic, a 20-something former member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 2011-2015 and a Bosnian refugee settled with her family in Waterloo in the 1980’s. This feisty and brilliant young woman left many of us with tears in our eyes as she received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her story.

In this dark time of our nation’s political life, it was so encouraging to see how many people do care about immigrants and refugees and how it is possible to make a difference at the grassroots even in the face of great opposition. Next steps may include the formation of an Eastern Iowa Refugee Alliance which could serve as a clearing house and coordinating mechanism for the many organizations and entities which already seem to be working together, but could do so much better in and through such an Alliance.

Iowa has a long history of refugee resettlement. In 1975, Republican Governor Robert Ray became the first in the nation to respond to President Gerald Ford’s request to assist in the refugee crisis. Since that time over 3 million refugees have resettled in this country from all over the world. Yet today there are 21.3 million refugees out there. Of these 86 % are hosted by developing countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled.

The world must do better. We must do better.

Yesterday’s summit convinced me that we can!

 

 

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