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.

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