We should accept and embrace refugees

By Laura Straub

President Donald Trump signed an executive order that indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, stopped all other refugee admittance for 120 days and banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days.

This order includes families with permanent resident status in the United States, people who built a life and career in our free country as well as young scholars and intellectuals traveling on student and work visas. Most importantly, it includes people fleeing war-torn and battle-scarred countries looking for asylum to start a life of hope and opportunity.

The past five years have left millions of refugees searching for refuge in safe countries in Europe and North America. They are searching for places to rebuild their lives and escape terror and trauma.

In my experience, refugees are not terrorists or to be feared. Refugees are people looking to get an education, have a successful career and raise a family. These are people who are looking for the safety and security we are granted every day.

Last year, I had the privilege of studying in Germany and volunteering at Patrick Henry Village, the local refugee camp. I spent more than 200 hours interacting and working with refugees looking for asylum status in Germany. I got a firsthand look into the life of a refugee.

I met refugees from all over the world. I learned about Christmas traditions from a young girl who traveled through Hungary, Arabic words from a group of Iranian boys and a recipe for special rice from two Nigerian brothers. I even read in English to children who would sit on my lap and not understand a word.

I watched a father from Syria cry as he told us his children could not read because it was not safe for them to go to school. I gazed at drawings of homes and children in boats. I played soccer with kids from many countries, yelling to them in different languages, but working together for their team to win. But, mostly, I listened to their stories and provided what I hope was a temporary distraction from the turmoil.

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Students volunteer at Patrick Henry Village, teaching children skills that will last a lifetime. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Donini)

The diverse backgrounds of the adults at the camp astounded me. I met mothers who were school teachers and helped us run our childcare program. I also met doctors and engineers with degrees that I could only dream of earning and young men from Gambia who could speak four different languages.

I realized these are the valuable people many countries, including our own, are turning away.

The motivation and determination to gain asylum in Germany was profound. Everyday, there were long lines for people waiting to get a spot in the German language classes offered. Refugees did hours upon hours of interview preparation with counselors for their asylum hearings. The ambition trickled down to children, as one teenage girl was thrilled about a donation of a biology textbook as it is her dream to become a doctor.

Our group of student volunteers hosted a holiday party for the kids with their favorite and most missed food: pizza. Mothers took knitting classes to make hats and gloves for their children, asking for yarn in their daughter’s favorite color: pink. The camp was relatively quiet and calm, unless the young men could start up a camp-wide game: soccer.

The time I spent at Patrick Henry Village made me realize that the only difference between a refugee and me is the country in which we were born.
Don’t allow fear of the unknown to shape your opinions. Remember that everyone has a social obligation to stand up for what is right. Stand and speak up for acceptance and tolerance.

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