Thinking Beyond the "Now" of the Refugee Crisis

The biggest news of the world--bigger than the US Open, bigger than the treaty with Iran, bigger than the economic melt-down ongoing in China--is this: the refugee crisis. If you haven't been watching it, if you haven't been reading about it, you most probably are spending your time twiddling your fingers in a cave.

In response to the crisis, Vietnamese (one of the most visible refugees of the past century) have been producing internet memes. These memes are short essays that summarize their early experience as refugees. They are illustrated by graphic images: photographs of them, often when they arrived "fresh off the boat" and usually juxtaposed with self-portraits of them now, as members of successful diasporas that have planted strong roots in communities throughout the Western world.

The implied comparison is apt: many Vietnamese refugees arrived in overloaded, sinking boats...just as the Syrians have been doing. These past few weeks, I have discovered the astonishing fact that I have an incredible number of friends who were featured in grainy newspaper pictures, not unlike the kinds of pictures of war-ravaged Syrians who wash up on beaches or remain stranded at way-stations. In this context, we Vietnamese--former refugees, ourselves--enjoy the dubious honor of having something important to contribute to the discussion.

Above all, these memes represent powerful arguments that the current crop of refugees should be taken in by other countries. And this message is especially powerful because it is crafted by those who have experienced the realities of this condition from the inside.

The message is clear: the stories are that of success; they are exhortations to not fear the impending influx of foreigners; they makes assurances that the current wave of refugees will become contributing members of society; they won't steal jobs; they will bring great credit to their families and their nations. The Vietnamese stories are testimonies that their own successes presage the eventual success of a succeeding wave-- the Syrians, the Turks, the Afghans--who now seek to find sanctuary in a spot on a globe that is not wracked by war.

The great news is that the current wave of refugees are being greeted with open arms: in Germany, we hear reports of refugees being met, not with pitchforks, but with candy, with signs of welcome, with used clothing. This is the best of all possible worlds.

But once all the ballyhoo has died down and the news engine has moved to the next crisis, the plight of refugees will remain, and they will remain for decades to come, as the refugees attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives and make meaning of their world in the societies that they will eventually call home.
I don't have a picture of myself as a downtrodden child of war.

I don't have a grainy photograph snapped by a journalist of me landing upon American shores. But I do have my own experience. So this is my own message: Besides saving refugees from their immediate danger, there need to be systems put in place--systems that will ensure success, not exploitation. These systems will prove more enduring and helpful than the candy and used clothing that greet immigrants now. These systems will survive the eventual backlash that will come when those who are now greeted with open arms will become the whipping post of arch-conservative politics.

Refugees are one of the most vulnerable sectors of society, subject to economic exploitation that will force them into the position of a permanent underclass. Their children are also vulnerable, too. So, I celebrate the fact that we are granting sanctuary to refugees. But if we are to truly think about refugees, we need to think beyond the "now" in which they wash up to our shores as the wretched of the earth. We need to recognize that they are humans and we need to realize our fair share in promoting their humanity. Otherwise, why house them?