Politics of Poverty

How to talk to your family about refugees this Thanksgiving: Take 2

Posted by
Rehab Alkadi and her husband Feras Shawish outside their apartment in Chicago. Syrian refugees, the couple and their 4-year-old son recently resettled here. (Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America)

Is your pre-holiday gathering anxiety higher than normal this year? A second installment of quick tips for answering those tough questions around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Shannon Scribner is the Associate Director Humanitarian Department for Oxfam America.

Just like every year my family and I will load up our car on Thursday and head to North Carolina for Thanksgiving.  We’ll set out early and drive all day, arriving just in time to join 20 family members for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s always nice to see everyone.  I get to see how much the kids have grown, get caught up on what everyone is doing, and reminisce about Thanksgivings past – like when Grandma Stroble used to hit up all the kids for quarters from their piggy banks asking us “not to tell our parents.”  All families have characters, mine is no exception.

We’ll do our usual catching up, have a glass of wine or two, but eventually the conversation will turn, as it always does, to politics and the issues of our day.  My family is made up of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and a Libertarian so the conversation is always lively.  But this year I am more anxious than normal. I expect the discourse to be much more difficult as we debate what a Trump presidency means for our country in terms of our values and beliefs, especially around helping refugees and their treatment after they arrive here in the United States.

As usual, my position on the subject will be well-known among my family before I even walk through the door to be greeted with hugs and smiles.  For the last 10 years I have been working for Oxfam; and we work in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, South Sudan, Sudan and Nigeria witnessing firsthand the impact persecution, war and terrorism is having on people each day. Millions have lost everything – their homes, their jobs, their possessions, their homeland, their dignity.  Even their family members.  My family knows I’ll be in favor of the US doing much more to welcome refugees to our country.

And I’m prepared to defend my position, because the facts are on my side.  If you think you may be having the same conversation with your family, here’s a quick look into the conversation that’s likely to take place around our table to help you prepare.

Uncle Adrian: “Now that Trump is President we can stop the flow of Syrian refugees into the US.  As Trump said, we don’t know who these people are, they have no documentation, and we don’t know what they are planning.”

Me: “Regardless of what Trump has been saying the US already does very thorough background checks and screenings on all refugees.  The process can take over two years due to required screenings, in-person interviews, records of unique personal identification like fingerprints and eye scans, investigations, and clearance by a host of government agencies including the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and US and international intelligence agencies. There is no shortcut.”

Now, can you pass the stuffing?

Uncle Mike: “Like I said last year, the possibility of letting one ISIS fighter into our country as a Syrian refugee is too great a risk to the welfare of my family.  Why would we ever want to take that risk?”

Me: “Uncle Mike, you are more likely to get killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack.  The fact is that coming to the US as a refugee is the toughest way to get into our country.  The program identifies the most vulnerable refugees, mostly women and children who are fleeing the Syrian regime, terrorists, and other armed groups.  Governor Pence – now Vice President-elect Pence – turned away a Syrian family who was en-route to Indiana after waiting four years to resettle in the US. Instead of being angry the family was so grateful to be welcomed in New Haven, Connecticut. They even said they hoped Pence would realize he made a mistake and see the light.  These people aren’t our enemies.”

“Aunt Tracey – are you going to share that wine?”

Aunt Tracey: “Well, I think it’s absolutely horrible that on top of turning away Syrian refugees, Trump is considering a registry for Muslim immigrants.  Reminds me of what our government did to Japanese-Americans during WWII.  And can I just say this wine is going straight to my head!”

“Here’s the wine, Shan.”

Little Adrian: “Bernie Sanders called Trump’s Muslim database idea “outrageous and bigoted.”

Me: “You are quoting Bernie?  I thought you were a Libertarian Little Adrian? Wasn’t Gary Johnson your man?”

Little Adrian: “No.  I couldn’t vote for him after his “what’s Aleppo” moment.”

“Can I have some of that wine?”

Aunt Kellie: “I hear what you are all saying and I’m also appalled about a Muslim registry, but I do think we took in too many refugees under President Obama and that we also spend too much money helping other people when we need to help Americans first.  Let other countries do more.”

“Mmm.  These rolls are delicious!  Hey, are the kids eating?”

Me: “So, again, regardless of what Trump said, last year President Obama only admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States.   In fact, last year the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom only hosted 8 percent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, while poorer countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa and the Occupied Palestinian Territory hosted over 50 percent.  These countries are doing much more but only account for less than 2 percent of the world’s economy.”

Cousin Lisa: “I don’t know.  Why don’t we just give more money to these countries so they can help more people?  Especially when so much of our tax dollars go toward helping others as Kellie was saying.”

“I put those rolls in the oven all by myself thank you very much.”

Me: “How much of the federal budget do you think goes to foreign aid to help with things like the refugee crisis?

Cousin Lisa: “I would guess 20 percent.”

Me: “Nope.  Less than 1 percent.  Most Americans estimate that 26 percent of our foreign budget goes towards helping others but it doesn’t. We can do much more both financially and to help people find safety in our country.”

Grandma Staver: “This is ridiculous.  Our family came from the Netherlands, the Stroble’s came from Germany, the Totten’s came from Japan and the rest of us all came from somewhere else.  Helping people find refuge and giving people a fresh start is a core American value.  America is about paving the way for a better future for our children and generations to come.  What are you afraid of?  I mean, did you hear Shannon? She said we are more likely to be killed by a PIECE OF FURNITURE than a terrorist attack and we are all scratching our heads about what to do to help people fleeing for their lives?  Get over yourselves and get on the right side of history.  Now someone pass me the apple pie.  All this nonsense has made me mad and in need of dessert.”
This year, like every year, I’m so thankful for my Grandma Staver.  Here’s hoping you also have a Grandma Staver at your Thanksgiving table too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Join Oxfam by adding your voice to support refugees and other vulnerable people around the world.

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+