Why America doesn’t empathize with refugees

On #WorldRefugeeDay, I’d like to share a theory of mine about why so many Americans remain hostile to settling a number of refugees commensurate with our resources and global responsibility.

I think most Americans can’t truly empathize with refugees because we are so seldom restricted by borders. How can we understand the desperate need of a Syrian mother or Honduran child leaving everything behind if we can’t imagine ourselves in their shoes?

As an ex-expat, I know just how easy it is for an American citizen to travel the world. Typically, we hop on a plane, pay some money, and waltz right in. As of 2012, Americans could travel to 166 countries (of 196) without obtaining a visa first. Contrast that with the 25 countries (mostly remote island nations) to which my Syrian husband can freely travel.

In my personal experience, Americans have a poor sense of their relative privilege. Over the course of the past year’s struggle to bring my Syrian husband to the US, I have been asked by many people, “Can’t he just come here with you?”

To the knowledgeable, that may seem hopelessly naive. But it’s natural for people to assume others have the things they themselves take for granted. If a group of Americans felt unsafe in the USA, surely all but the very poor could legally find another place to live. Our education and reputation, and the fact that almost everybody speaks our mother tongue, would undoubtedly ease our transition abroad. Why would we ever need to burden other nations with “aid” and “resettlement”?

The very idea of Americans being forced out of our country is somewhat absurd. The USA is huge, diverse, and powerful. We enjoy strong rule of law and effective defense. Even if a natural or man-made catastrophe struck an entire state or region, we would have room to resettle within our own borders.

Each of our states can be compared with entire nations in terms of land areapopulation, even GDP. If you want to live somewhere sunnier, cooler, more conservative, more liberal, busier, more relaxed, better for your business, cheaper, more or less diverse, whatever… Just pack up and go! If your state government adopts laws you hate, you can vote with your feet. No visa, no checkpoints, no questions asked.

Most refugees are fleeing nations considerably smaller and more homogeneous than our own.

For all the Americans out there, I want to walk you through a thought experiment. I’m going to use my home state of Maine, which is in some ways an ideal example.

Imagine that each state in New England is a sovereign nation. Let’s assume that, like many regional clusters, people can travel visa-free and easily gain employment throughout. As long as peace prevails, this suits the states’ mutual interest just fine. Quite a lot of Maine youth travel to states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts seeking a better job market. Those states’ people enjoy cheap vacations in the rugged mountains and coast of Maine. Everybody’s happy.

Now imagine that civil war breaks out in Maine. (Perhaps some stubbornly independent Northerners have taken up arms against government agents attempting to create a national park in the Katahdin region!) New Hampshire revokes visa-free travel. Canada mobilizes military forces to quarantine the violence. Your sons and daughters working for Boston companies are suddenly unable to renew their Massachusetts visas, but you tell them to stay put. It’s just not safe at home, besides, there are even fewer jobs here now.

Things get worse, and you start to consider getting out of dodge. Hundreds of Portland residents die fleeing by boat in dangerous winter conditions. You finally shell out $3000 to a smuggler who promises safe passage to New Brunswick, but he leaves you to find your own way across the border from a remote trail head.

Can you even imagine?

I can. But that’s because I have Facebook chatted with friends as they rode rubber boats across the Mediterranean, hiked through Eastern Europe, and started new lives in Germany. I’ve watched my mother-in-law struggle to protect her children when all four are in separate places and varying states of danger. I’ve paid extortionate sums to the Lebanese government so my husband could travel with me to an uncertain future. When I see pictures of exhausted, hungry families trapped in camps, I cry. When I hear American politicians demonize these same people, I rage.

We are uniquely privileged in our ability to seek out greener pastures both at home and abroad. For most of the world, that freedom and convenience is inconceivable. We must work hard to truly appreciate our privilege and open our hearts to refugees.


This vote is personal.

A lot of people agree that this election sucks. On a typical day, I cannot scroll through Facebook for more than 15 seconds before some version of this meme pops up:



In some ways, I sympathize with this feeling. However, I know better than to think my choice doesn’t matter.

Without going into my own political theories and leanings, I just want to share a very specific plea to those considering casting their vote for the “presumptive Republican nominee” (henceforth The Nominee, as I personally believe he has received more than enough publicity). We are all aware of The Nominee’s stated and confirmed claim that he would institute a “temporary ban” of Muslims entering the United States. I need you to understand what that really means.

My husband, Zac, is a Syrian exile. We met in Lebanon in November 2013, fell in love, and got married almost exactly a year ago. We are such an awesome match and an amazing team. Our marriage is based on shared passions (music, cultural pluralism, and social justice), blunt communication, and a willingness to tackle every challenge sent our way, together. Due to Zac’s nationality and a string of unfortunate circumstances, we have been separated for about 9 months of the past year. Our first year of marriage. Including our first anniversary.

Zac has spent that time laying low in Nepal and now Malaysia, two of the handful of countries willing to issue visa-on-arrival to Syrians.* Zac is now staying with incredibly generous friends of mine in Kuala Lumpur. His visa expires in about a month, and his passport expires in less than six months. This means he cannot legally stay or go anywhere, except for his home country where he would be A. forcibly conscripted into Assad’s murderous military forces, B. tortured or disappeared due to his association with Syrian opposition activists, or C. crucified by extremists whom he also refuses to endorse. That is, if he doesn’t die of starvation, untreated illness, or a bomb first.

Needless to say, I applied for his US green card as soon as I could.

I have been begging the US government to expedite Zac’s visa for the last several months. Anybody who has gone through it knows how expensive, difficult, and slow it is to bring a foreign spouse of any nationality to join them here. We are not alone. But if The Nominee is elected President of the United States, we could be.

The Nominee would ban my husband from entering the US, because his Syrian-issued passport and identity documents label him “Sunni Muslim”. Zac did not ask for those words to be printed there. The only time I’ve seen him step foot in a mosque was to ask about a particularly beautiful recording of the call to prayer. As an outspoken hip-hop artist whose civil rights have never been guaranteed, he has put himself at more risk speaking against Muslim extremists than The Nominee ever will.** Not that any of this should matter. Even if Zac was your average, moderately religious Syrian pursuing an apolitical career, he would still deserve to be protected and reunited with his wife. Bottom line: A blanket religious exclusion will leave my husband and others like him vulnerable, abandoned.

I honestly don’t know what we will do if The Nominee wins. All of our hard work and hopes will be instantly tossed away. Zac will become a refugee in the true sense of the word, and I will have to leave my home country to be with him. I don’t know where we will live, how we will provide for ourselves, what legal rights will be stripped from us.

All I can do is share our story and hope that my husband gets his visa before Inauguration Day. I ask that come November, you consider our future.***



* As of January 2016, Nepal no longer issues visa-on-arrival to Syrians.

** To be sure, Daesh and Al-Qaeda love The Nominee. He is a fantastic recruiting tool.

*** If you can’t stand the idea of voting for Hillary Clinton, check out Vote Pact for an ingenious alternative to “wasting your vote”!