We are afraid of many things.
We fear the prospect of children dying in Nigeria when the impending famine hits, or becoming paralyzed because Boko Haram is blocking efforts to eradicate polio. We fear the impacts of terrorism, both at home and abroad, a topic about which you have certainly heard. Most of us also fear the rising oceans, the hazy skies, or the lost futures of the millennial generation and any generations unfortunate enough to come after us, unless you have decided not to think about that too much. And maybe you are afraid for, or of, the waves of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and the U.S. But allowing our fear to prevent us from helping them is wrong.
When we are asked to help, rather than care from a distance, a different fear takes precedence. An online donation is one thing, but bringing the problem to our backyards is another. Maybe that’s the difference between a charity drive for starving children half a world away and the question of whether or not we want to accept refugees. And today, we are not only balancing our desire to help with our desire for safety and familiarity. Today there are people actively asking us to prioritize our fear of migrants and refugees, and foreigners generally, over our sense of responsibility.
This fear can drive us to do ugly things. I am tired of all the darkness fear is bringing into the mainstream. Isolationist, nationalist rhetoric drove Brexit, fuels Trump, and is highlighting latent racism and bigotry throughout Western countries. The ones who pay the price for this rhetoric are migrants and refugees who come to start over to set up new lives and build new homes. They face unknowns larger and more terrifying than most of us can relate to.
I grew up moving often, and I’ve come to appreciate what I call the two-year rule: it takes two years to completely build a life in a new place. This is no universal law, but it has held true for me. It held true in Frankfurt, Germany, and in Fairfax, Virginia, right across the Potomac from here. It’s still true now: this is my third year here at Georgetown, and I’m finally feeling at home.
But I say this as a German-American who grew up speaking both English and German, who moved between the UK, Belgium, Germany, and the US, attending international schools much of the time, and always near (relatively near) at least one half of my family. I say this with all the privileges of my white skin, never having been profiled as a threat to my new community’s way of life because of my race. I never stood out too much, I never felt my presence was a cause for fear or anger. I could argue there is plenty of culture shock to be had switching between Brussels and Virginia, or London and Houston and back again, but relatively speaking it was all pretty homogeneous.
What rule is there for a total reset? A forced move to a new culture and language, knowing that you are unwanted and unwelcome, at least for some? It takes courage I cannot fathom; faith in people I do not have. All of us who argue against presence of refugees in our communities are succumbing to a selfish terror.
Here in D.C. and at Georgetown, we have prime seats for the endless drama on the national and world stages, and the pattern is oppressive. Brexit pushed its way to reality on a wave of xenophobia. In Denmark there is a a similarly anti-EU and anti-immigrant party, the Danish People’s Party, gives voice to those who argue that migrants don’t suit Danish culture. In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland is gaining absurd amounts of support, and Chancellor Angela Merkel–a centrist if one ever lived, and a conservative one at that–is the most prominent proponent of mercy and defendant of migrants who I can hear above the noise. Centrist and leftist groups losing ground to right-wing populists is a trend that may reflect the future of the EU. And in the U.S., Trump, a presidential candidate for a mainstream party, is normalising hatred on all fronts. You can see that xenophobia on an even larger scale now, with the majority of state governors across the country refusing the admittance of refugees (without any real power to do so).
This is cowardly. These actions are fueled by fear and rationalised by self-interest. The unimaginable leap that migrants and refugees take in the hopes of a better life, for themselves or their family, deserves our respect. We need to rise above our own fears—be they fears of terrorism, fears of lost cultural values, fear of an overtaxed society—and applaud their courage.
Treat others as you would wish to be treated—this value is nearly universal, overwhelmingly simple, and can be attributed to many different religions. It becomes especially important in times of crisis. While we may argue this is not a time of crisis simply because we don’t see the crisis here, there is crisis, and refugees need our help, not our hate.
A lot of us on this campus aspire to be leaders in foreign policy and international affairs after graduation. I hope we can all remember the political theories we learn here and also keep the following at the forefront of our minds: Those who come to our countries to build new lives have been indescribably brave. We owe them the courtesy of courage, and the basic hospitality we owe all humanity.