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Why should we care about refugees?

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Children gather outside a school tent set at a makeshift camp crowded by migrants and refugees at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, on May 2, 2016. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
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“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Pope Francis said, during a visit to a refugee camp in Greece on April 16. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Common humanity. What a powerful phrase. And how it resonates. The refugee crisis is a problem that requires a collective as well as an individual consciousness.

Any humanitarian crisis must prompt us to look at hardship, not only as a city, state or country, but also as a person living in a diverse and democratic society, mindful to the magnitude of individual suffering. It’s a dilemma of inclusion and compassion. And it’s here to stay.

Sadly, with the xenophobia that has informed and animated the sound bites of at least one of our presidential frontrunners, refugees and immigrants have become poster children for why our poor stay poor. That is, because outsiders take what we have, and because we admit and include refugees and immigrants into our cities.

While Europe is in the throes of a refugee crisis, the numbers of refugees entering America is most definitely not at crisis level. Our nationwide refugee admission is currently capped at 85,000. (The cap has been raised to 100,000 for the next year, which starts in October.)

This number of 85,000 is a fraction of the 1.1 million who crossed into Germany in 2015. Many asylum seekers were welcomed into individual homes in Germany, according to an article by the United Nations Refugee agency. “Spare rooms are no longer vacant and home offices have become bedrooms,” as Germans open their doors to those who are displaced, said the article. That’s admirable, but perhaps we do not need to go that far. At the least, we must be informed of who we are letting in and why we are doing so.

In San Francisco, we have several organizations doing terrific work in the area of refugee assistance. In particular, the nonprofit Refugee Transitions helps to integrate refugees into the cities and communities to which they now belong. This is done through a network of volunteers who go out to the homes of students and adult newcomers to teach English and other life skills. The value of learning English is stressed by the agency as critical to accessing and participating in the full potential of the world around.

In a powerful series of web-based stories called “Pursuing Dreams: Stories of Refugee and Immigrant Youth in California,” produced by Refugee Transitions, young voices reveal the scars they’ve come to America with and the smaller struggles they endure for the promise of a stable future.

We hear of Fernando, a 12th grader from El Salvador. On a journey to America in an attempt to evade ICE officers, Fernando and his father hid motionless under a small bush for five hours. They had exhausted their water supply by then and drank water from puddles as they trudged their way to safety, hungry, exhausted and bearing down on bleeding heels. Fernando concluded his story by saying he didn’t find what he expected to find in America, but realized that “because I stood strong and I didn’t gave [sic] up, I now have a better life and more opportunities.”

We hear of a touching account of friendship from N.N., a sixth grader from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Losing an impulsive friendship with Emily within a week at her new school, N.N. later found lasting friends Ashley and Chloe, while sustaining a scraped knee. Her message was direct and engaging: “Some people might not want to be your friend, but just don’t give up. Keep trying. There will always be a person in the world who wants to be friends with you.”

Then there’s Jyoti from Bhutan, studying business management at San Francisco State University, who aspires to the “Morning in America” notion of happiness. “I have only one life, but I do have many dreams,” Jyoti says. She goes on to talk about how she is the first one in her family to finish college.

Certainly, the life of a refugee in America is vastly different from that of a refugee in Greece. The International Rescue Committee has chronicled stories of overcrowded makeshift communal tents in wet, cold weather in Idomeni, a border camp in northern Greece. Yet even in such desperate conditions, people fashion their own hope narratives. Children continue to play. Adults continue to find pleasure in the pierce of a sudden ray of shine. Mothers make their sons’ favorite dishes over campfires in cast iron pots. Life persists even within a “wait and wait” cycle.

There are close to 50,000 refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area. In contrast to Idomeni, our refugees have access to public housing, welfare, supplemental security income, food stamps, Medicaid and more — just like any other American.

It’s true that we treat our newcomers well. And it’s not something we need to be ashamed of or resent. It’s likely one of the reasons why many daydream about America and what makes The City a global magnet.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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