Column: Welcoming refugees is our responsibility

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Thousands of displaced Somali immigrants live in this camp in Mogadishu. Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

Imagine the pain of a hardworking father as he is forced to bring his family onto a small rubber boat. Although Mahmoud is promised by traffickers that his children will have safety and education in Italy, the boat never reaches Italy. Instead the traffickers bring them to Libya, where the family and other refugees are held captive with small amounts of rotten food for two weeks. They are released into a life of poverty and uncertainty in Libya.

The family of five is now a family of four, after a son died on the journey.

Mahmoud’s wife is named Fouzieh. As I read her story of suffering with her children and losing a son, I cannot help but picture the image of a Latter-day Saint pioneer mother burying her son in a makeshift grave at Winter Quarters. Although Libya and Nebraska are far apart, these mothers have something in common. They know how it feels to be forced from one’s home and into a world of uncertainty. They know the heartbreak of being unable to prevent their children from suffering and even death.

I do not know, but they do. And so does Jesus Christ. In April 2016 general conference, Elder Patrick Kearon spoke of the refugee crisis.

“The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee — He was one,” Kearon said.

As a Christian and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I feel a moral obligation to take action. Before I explain more, let’s review some numbers.

The crisis in numbers

82.4 million people have fled their homes to survive. 26.4 million of them have refugee status, meaning that they have crossed an international border. Half of them are children. In the past 10 years, only 1 million have been resettled. Read that again.

This is a crisis.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a refugee is a person who has fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country. Under international law, refugees have the right not to be forced to return to a country that puts their life at risk and to seek asylum. 85% of refugees are housed in developing countries.

Parents, children and individuals flee extreme violence in Syria, the number one homeland of refugees. 13.5 million Syrians have been displaced, half of the total population. Many refugees come from Afghanistan, Venezuela and South Sudan.

The role of the United States in the crisis

In recent years, even before the pandemic, the United States has been tragically lowering the number of refugees they accept into the country. In 2019, the U.S. had a limit of 30,000 refugees accepted and housed 341,715. In comparison, Turkey housed 3.5 million, Germany 1.1 million and France 407,915, to name just a few. These countries are significantly smaller than the U.S. We need to increase our numbers.

Maybe you have heard that refugees are dangerous or a threat to the economy. These are myths. Studies have proven that immigration does not import terrorism and that a seeming increase in crime is simply proportional to an increase in population. Immigration can even be correlated with less crime. Two million refugees have entered the U.S. since 1980, and not one has committed a deadly terrorist attack.

What we can do

Many of these suggestions come from the International Rescue Committee’s website. The IRC is a group that I love, but there are many other groups working to aid refugees as well.

Sign up to teach English or tutor.

Organizations like Paper Planes connect volunteers with refugees and displaced youth from the Middle East. All teaching, tutoring and mentoring is done online, making it a great opportunity for BYU-Idaho students.

Check out resources from the Church for helping refugees and pray to know how you can act on these teachings.

The First Presidency issued a statement inviting members to participate in aiding refugees.

The Church is working with a variety of organizations offering aid to refugees in over 15 countries. Their site, IWasAStranger, provides ideas for church members to aid new neighbors.

Read talks from General Conference. Refuge From the Storm by Patrick Kearon and I Was a Stranger by Linda K. Burton address our responsibility as followers of Jesus Christ to aid refugees.

Donate money, goods or give a birthday present.

The International Rescue Committee suggests supplies to donate on their site. Financial donations are also an option, and funds are used wisely.

Can’t decide on a birthday, holiday or Christmas gift for a loved one? The IRC also has options to give anything from a year of school to a bar of soap to a refugee or person in need.

For your own birthday, think about asking for friends and family to donate to a group you love, or set up a Facebook fundraiser.

Sign a petition.

Petitions make a difference. Sign a petition to protect at-risk Afghans or Haitian asylum seekers.

Share your feelings and refugee stories.

Post on social media or talk to your friends. I am not the best when it comes to posting about important causes on social media, but it is something I want to improve on. Advocating for refugees through social media or conversations can help change mindsets.

Learn about and share refugee stories here.

Volunteer.

This one can be more of a challenge while living in Rexburg, but there are still things you can do to help.

You can help a refugee with their taxes, donate needed items to the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, or participate in the new organization, Rexburg Students for Refugees, a group I am starting to help raise awareness and give support to refugee organizations. For updates on activities and events, follow @rexforrefugees on Instagram.

During my second semester here at BYU-I, I met Neh Meh, a Karenni refugee from Myanmar, in one of my classes. She is now a graduate student at Brandeis University, studying conflict resolutions and coexistence, and sustainable international development. She is a pretty amazing person and helped me as I brainstormed ideas on how to support refugees. I asked her about the importance of welcoming refugees as members of the Church.

Neh Meh, a Karenni refugee from Myanmar, is a former BYU-Idaho student, current graduate student, and advocate for refugees.
Neh Meh, a Karenni refugee from Myanmar, is a former BYU-Idaho student, current graduate student, and advocate for refugees.

“Leaders of the Church have encouraged us to welcome refugees and help those in need. I believe BYU-I and members of the Church should take the leaders’ words seriously,” Neh Meh said. “Refugees are also our brothers and sisters who have been economically impacted and struggle to have a better life. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, we can emulate Him by welcoming the refugees, making space for them, and giving them opportunities to obtain education that can change their future generations.”