What A Refugee-Turned-Labor Leader Thinks Of Our Backlash Against Refugees

The vice president of the AFL-CIO fled violence in Ethiopia and walked through a desert to come to America. "I don't think we can afford as a country to say no to these people," he says of the Syrians.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Tefere Gebre has been following the political debate over Syrian refugees this week from his downtown D.C. office, about a block from the White House. At times, he said, the discourse has turned his stomach.

"It's been a tough week," Gebre, the vice president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, told The Huffington Post.

For Gebre, the issue is personal. He was 14 years old when, in 1982, he and four friends fled their native Ethiopia. They were seeking safety from the communist Derg, the military dictatorship that Gebre said had murdered several of their neighbors and left them dead in the street. After traveling for 93 days in the desert, abandoned by their guides, the boys made it to a Sudanese refugee camp. Gebre weighed 67 pounds.

"That's one number I will never forget," he said.

In Sudan, Gebre applied for U.S. refugee status. He had been part of a communist youth league at home, and he feels certain that if he had returned to Ethiopia he would have been considered a traitor and killed. After what he describes as an arduous screening process, Gebre was cleared to come to the United States several months later, leaving behind his mother and father. He was part of an influx of thousands of Ethiopian refugees fleeing a reign of terror in the early 1980s.

"I was the only one accepted," he said of his friends. "The other four did not meet the requirements."

By any measure, the 47-year-old has done quite well for himself. Although he couldn't understand spoken English when he arrived here as a teenager, Gebre is the first-ever immigrant elected as an officer of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, which has 56 unions representing more than 12 million workers. Some have seen his ascension as a symbol of the changing demographics of organized labor, which, like the U.S. workforce as a whole, is becoming less white and more diverse.

Gebre says his background as an immigrant, and particularly as a refugee, shaped his ambitions and his activism.

"I just wish Americans understood the spirit, the determination and the heart of people who want to be refugees," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's Afghanistan, or Central America or Africa or anywhere else. They're the most driven people, who want to better themselves and help us build as a country. We should be blessed to have a lot more of them come here.

"I don't think we can afford as a country to say no to these people," he added.

America's hospitality toward refugees is now facing its most difficult political test in a generation. Millions of Syrians have fled the violence of the country's civil war since 2011. Following last week's terror attacks by Islamic State extremists in Paris, governors around the country and lawmakers in Washington -- most of them Republicans -- want to block or slow down the admittance of refugees from Syria on the grounds that terrorists may sneak in among them.

Much of the rhetoric has been harsh. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who's running to be the GOP candidate for president, has said he would not even welcome orphan refugees under the age of 5. ("I felt like puking," Gebre said of Christie's comments.) Many legal experts have said that governors do not have the power to keep refugees out of their states, despite their proclamations.

The White House has developed a plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the course of the fiscal year, a modest commitment compared to those of U.S. allies like Germany. But a contingent of Democrats joined House Republicans in voting for a bill Thursday that would delay the White House's plan by adding new steps to the refugee screening process, which already takes about a year and a half to two years.

Gebre said he found the process to be thorough even in the early 1980s, long before it was enhanced following Sept. 11 and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. (His friends who were not admitted to the U.S. with him at the time ended up in, variously, Australia, Canada and later America, he said.) Many Democrats, too, have argued that the existing process is already demanding and sufficient, and that resettlement plans should not be put on hold given the humanitarian crisis.

"There is already a really, really high bar," Gebre said. "It's just been disturbing this week to listen to people say we need more vetting. We already have more vetting. It's disheartening to hear politicians who know what the truth is just rally up xenophobic attitudes in this country."

Gebre said he settled in the U.S. with the help of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit that provides food and shelter and helps refugees relocate in the U.S. On Wednesday, the group issued a petition saying it was "deeply disappointed" by the calls from lawmakers for a moratorium on the acceptance of Syrian refugees, which were based on what it called "unfounded fears."

Just as bad as the rhetoric, Gebre claimed, was the passage of the bill on Thursday. A White House threat to veto the bill did not stop Democrats from joining the Republican majority to pass it 289-137. Although Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the legislation does not have a chance of getting through the Senate, Gebre argued that the bill sent a loud and unsettling message.

"This country is better than that," Gebre said. "It's better than the bill we just passed today. When we pass bills like this, we become the country I did not dream about and walk through the desert to come to."

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