“You have to understand…" (Sept. 3 column)


No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.” This line from the poem "Home" by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, brings home the stark reality of the horrifying decisions refugee parents must make. This month includes International Day of Peace, and it had me thinking about the refugee situation. What I cannot help thinking about is the refugees who came to Iowa. I’ve read articles about Syrian refugees settling in Des Moines, and I wondered how Estherville handled refugees the last time there were many thousands of them to care for.

But first, this has been an eventful week with a search for a local alleged fugitive at Ft. Defiance, the closure of McDonald's, and community members on both sides of a dispute over the content of the Estherville Lincoln Central volleyball poster. Having played volleyball up through the eighth grade, I can attest to the fact that serving the ball and protecting the net are two major skills in the game. A poster may not be the right tool to discuss the real issues of police across the nation and their treatment of people of color, and Estherville may not be the ideal location to discuss it, not that the black lives we have here do not matter, but because we have other ways to address any racism that happens here.

The Emmet County Republican Women are addressing the issue by having a Trump Train Parade Sept. 19 that also includes support for local law enforcement.

To that end, I think the discussions Mayor Joseph May has urged us to have should continue to happen. Let's suspend our biases, really listen to those who would express injustice, and be excellent to each other as we remember there are many forms of oppression, with the fact that at one time Iowa was a most welcoming place for those seeking asylum.

I read in the June 12, 1979, issue of the Estherville Daily News about Nhon Quach, who traveled to Austin, Texas, was somehow not picked up by a Presbyterian church who’d agreed to sponsor him there, but managed to connect with other members of his family who were already sponsored by St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Estherville.

In Austin, Quach stayed temporarily with a friend and worked in a restaurant to earn enough money to pay for his flight to Ft. Dodge. St. Patrick’s parishioners picked him up. Once settled and working in Estherville, he also worked to pay back the cost of his flight from Vietnam. Our article about Quach highlighted his hopes and dreams for college, and the other members of his family who were working.

This brings me to a point of contention I often see in discussions about bringing Syrian refugees here: they will be a drain on the welfare system and the churches or other groups who sponsor them.

Research suggests that, in the longer run, welcoming refugees is far from a burden. An October, 2013 study called Economic Impact of Refugees in the Cleveland (Ohio) area prepared for the city’s Refugee Services Collaborative found: Research provides evidence that refugees are highly motivated and wish to give back to their host country. Refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. The literature also supports the argument that immigrants in general do not take jobs away from natives and that the diversity of skilled immigration can positively impact the income and productivity of welcoming nations. At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population.

The Cleveland study also details the revenue boost to the state and the U.S. government, as well as the economic impact of agencies serving refugees. To further dispel the myth that refugees drain government assistance programs: This study finds that refugees in Cleveland very quickly find employment (typically in less than 5 months) and they quickly move off of most, if not all, government assistance programs.

Forty-three years ago, a Laotian family of 10 arrived in Estherville to make their home here. The Oct. 4, 1976 issue of the Estherville Daily News highlights the family of Teng Ly and Deu Vang from a refugee camp. That year, the U.S. had volunteered to aid 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees. Teng Ly, then 34 years old, was looking for a job in Estherville, and the family was seeking housing while they stayed with the then-pastor of Estherville Lutheran Church. Ly’s work experience was in the infantry division of the Laotian Army. “We were, in fact, the enemy,” Teng Ly said then, as the Laotian government was taken over by communists.

Another point: it’s different now; what if these refugees are terrorists?

As of a year ago, according to the Washington D.C. research center New America Foundation, 48 people were killed by domestic right-wing terrorists since 9/11 and 26 by U.S. based Islamic terrorists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of 112 documented, radical, right-wing terrorist plots since the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh in 1995.

The Syrian refugees waiting for passage to a new country (they don’t get a choice unless they already have family members here ready to sponsor and support them) are screened by the United Nations, the Department of Homeland Security, and more. The process takes a minimum of 18-24 months. They must wait until there are enough refugees in their location wanting to enter the U.S. before the State Department sends an interviewer to speak with a large number of refugees on one or two days, each individually. Screeners also take biometric information, using the refugees’ self-identified family tree. If one person says they have two sisters, but another woman who says she’s a sister of the family but has only one sister, the discrepancy could throw both women out of the program.

It’s different now? Have we asked why it is different now? Then-Gov. Terry Branstad opposed the State Department sending refugees to Iowa, in part because of safety and in part because of a lack of federal funding to cover up-front costs. There are Syrian refugees in Des Moines now, as well as a significant group of Burmese refugees who have filtered in since 2007.

Gov. Robert Ray took a different approach. Ray established what would be named the Iowa Refugee Service Center. Iowa was the first state to offer resettlement assistance to refugees. Iowa was also the first and only state to have a government resettlement agency. Gov. Ray developed a national reputation as a humanitarian leader through his refugee resettlement initiative.

I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die’. We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation…Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

--Governor Robert D. Ray

To me, humanitarianism seems like an Iowa ethic we should still embrace.


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