Every breaking wave
I’ve been away for a few days of retreat. It's a January tradition I’ve followed since founding Beautiful Day as a way to get my head back on straight after the craziness and consumerism of the holiday season (which I now participate in as both consumer and business).
So I was alone, not another person in sight, walking down a long peninsula toward the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge when news was being leaked about President Trump’s plan to "realign" the US refugee resettlement program. The draft version I've seen includes a 4-month suspension to all resettlement, a ban on resettling any Syrians—the most devastated people on earth right now—and then a cap of 50,000 people for fiscal year 2017 (which, as I understand it, would put resettlement numbers at a historical low and effectively allow only 20,000 more refugees between now and October 2017).
It’s good thing to be alone and small in the presence of breaking waves and shifting dunes and the incredible beauty of a cold fog when some of your life work seems threatened. When I checked my phone, it told me I was walking in open ocean. For some reason that made me laugh out loud. The whole peninsula had shifted east since Google maps recorded it. I keep thinking about that now. I'm a little person. All this effort to grow a business and develop a job training program and build a non-profit may be about as permanent as blowing sand. But powerful presidents, and executive orders, like nations and civilizations, aren't so permanent either. I can't stop myself from believing that ultimately it's people that matter. And love matters. Those are the solid things. Everything else will eventually blow away.
Don't get me wrong. I’m not saying this isn’t bad news for refugees. I think it's pretty bad. It means human suffering will increase. As the United States pulls back from being part of the solution, the refugee-creating forces of this world will be empowered. And even a short term suspension dashes the hopes of very specific people.
An example: my administrative assistant’s fiancé arrived in Chicago from Iraq (via Lebanon) just two weeks ago. This arrival was the end of a 6 year long process of waiting patiently and being carefully vetted. For Vivian and our whole staff team, his arrival was a huge relief. And yet he had family members who had also been waiting those same 6 years. Some were already vetted, already accepted for resettlement, already holding signed documents, just like him--waiting for the call that didn't come yet. Who knows what will happen now.
The bigger picture is the US resettlement program itself. As I’ve been in the process of building an organization I’ve grown more aware of how vulnerable systems and organizations can be. Resettlement is conducted through the almost insanely determined efforts of caring people who don’t just help those who arrive but nurture a fragile system of volunteers, partners, and methods of providing case management and care. “Suspending” fragile systems like this is like asking an organism to take a break from breathing for a little while. Since resettlement is funded on a per capita basis, this means money will dry up, people who have dedicated their lives to resettlement will be laid off or move on taking institutional knowledge with them. I feel so sad about this. If that suspension reverses in four months, employees won’t just come back. Local organizations may need to start over with less experience, less hope and confidence. It's will be a blow that most Americans will never know or give a second thought to. Once the system itself has been on life support it will be easier to point out all the flaws and inefficiencies.
Of course, none of this unexpected. The refugee program is the lowest hanging fruit in immigration reform. But let me be blunt: I think this executive order is shameful. It's using the world's most vulnerable as a pawn in our politics. It takes another step in positioning resettlement as a liberal rather than bi-partisan humanitarian concern. It's an affront to people of faith, particularly those out of Judeo-Christian traditions that consider welcoming the stranger to be act of faith. (The anti-Muslim rhetoric only adds to the affront--as if welcome was ever conditional on another person's faith. That is so ugly.) It disparages the incredibly hard work of resettlement programs in vetting overseas and in reception and placement here. It degrades the integrity of the system. And issuing the order on the same day that the administration was recognizing International Holocaust Remembrance day?--that is venturing into the perverse.
So what about us? (People keep asking me if we're going to shut down.) Well, we're not going anywhere. A suspension in new arrivals doesn’t threaten us as immediately as many others in the field. There are enough refugees still asking to work with us to keep us busy for a year. But here's our plan:
1) We’ll open our doors to working with refugees who struggle with more significant job entry barriers. We’ve already started doing this.
2) We'll extend the training period especially for those with the greatest need. This might make for less impressive outcomes and higher costs per trainee, but it will make our work more satisfying as it allows us to build deeper relationships.
3) We can start investing more in wraparound services. As local resettlement services get stretched with fewer staff we may need to provide more employment transition services. We already have the state's most experienced refugee job developer (Meggean Ward) working for us as our Operations and Training Director. If we can free up more of her time to provide job development services, our trainees will have better opportunities.
4) We’ll direct more efforts toward building relationships between refugees and their surrounding communities. Since almost all our employees are refugees we're uniquely positioned to do this, although we'll have to explore funding options. If more Americans (and politicians) were actual friends with a refugee they might respond to this executive order differently.
5) We'll press forward in our plans to grow our granola company. Even if we are working with fewer refugees, our product is intended as a simple invitation for people to get involved in issues of displacement. That is needed more than ever.
6) If over time we run out of refugees to employ, we'll just expand to hep others who need the dignity of entering the job market.
And how can you help? One simple thing is to just speak up to your state representatives. Please call their offices. Express your support for the refugee resettlement program and your opposition to this executive order. And especially if you are in a red state with a republican representative. (You can even send them a gift of some of our granola. I would love to be able to send some granola to every single person in congress. We could keep a list here of who we've covered if you'll order the gift.) But please take your five minutes to speak up and help prevent refugees from becoming a single party issue during a time when Democrats have little power.
And of course, keep buying our granola. Our goal is to make a difference with every bite you take--but we're going to need a lot of bites. We'll say more on this later, but you might consider leading a fundraising effort for us--we have granola kits to make that easy. And do stay tuned over the next couple months as we launch begin launching all our work in rebranding. It's going to be a busy winter and spring.
Thank you for being our partners and friends at this time on this journey as we work together to do things that matter and stay focused on the solid things.