Don’t Punish People Fleeing ISIS

Originally Published in : Time Magazine

Following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, John Kasich, the governor of my state of Ohio, along with 30 other state governors, said he would not accept Syrian refugees into the state. Then, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to make it harder for refugees to enter the country. On Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is “really quite nice” and people would rather stay there than come to the U.S.

These actions are contradictory to America’s long tradition of offering a safe haven to people fleeing persecution. From Irish immigrants to Cuban asylees and now to Syrians fleeing ISIS, the U.S. has been a needed place of refuge for oppressed peoples from around the world.

I am included in that number. I was resettled in America more than 20 years ago by a refugee agency in the same way 10,000 Syrian refugees will be resettled across the U.S. in the upcoming year. There were six of us: my mother, my sister, my three brothers and myself, a 12-year old, skinny Somali kid with bifocals from Mogadishu.

That summer, in 1993, Somalia was in the throes of civil war and a devastating famine. Six months earlier, U.S. Marines had landed on the beaches of Mogadishu and images of emaciated Somali children, burning buildings and gunfights in familiar urban streets proliferated the news. A country was ripping itself apart, and we were among 500,000 refugees who had fled the ensuing chaos.

My family and I were placed in a sleepy Vermont town with a population of 700 and one main road to its name. We stayed at the home of a Vermont couple, a professor and an immigrant-rights advocate, who hosted transient refugees before they were resettled elsewhere. As we drove into the driveway of a rambling New England colonial, all of us stuffed into a red Buick and uncertain of our fate, I remember two smiling faces welcoming us with open arms.

I remember my first trip into town. The procession of five Somali children and my mother, her bright red gabisaar, billowing and twisting in the wind as it enveloped her, was so incongruous to the backdrop of steeple-roofed churches and the rolling Vermont countryside that people noticeably stared as we walked into town. I remember my first day of class, hesitantly mouthing along to the national anthem, not yet confident enough not to stumble over the words. I remember, as the sun dipped behind the large expanse that was Lake Champlain, trying to make it home for evening salat but more often than not praying on a patch of grass. Of my first July 4th, I remember sparklers, face paint and the sounds of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

We eventually moved to Ohio, where I attended college. I graduated law school and dedicated my career to working with refugees and displaced populations who have undergone the same turbulent journey I went through. I launched an organization, Iftiin Foundation, to empower youth in Somalia through entrepreneurship. In the next few months I plan to stand before a judge to take the Oath of Allegiance for my citizenship ceremony.

The initial journey to reach this point was not simple. Before entering the country and throughout our resettlement and eventual application for citizenship, my family and I had to undergo exhaustive background checks, interviews and screenings. Every detail of our journey to America was scrutinized.

I can confirm from experience that the claim that hordes of terrorists will slip into to the U.S. among Syrian refugees are manifestly unfounded. Of the nearly 800,000 refugees that have resettled in the U.S. since 9/11 only one was arrested for attempting to plan an attack within the country. The cries to ban Syrian refugees instead panders to xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments that should not be credited.

The same year that we arrived in the U.S., a Black Hawk Helicopter was shot down in Somalia during the American mission in the country. Horrific images of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through Mogadishu streets by the Somalis shocked the world. As I hear the demands to prevent the entrance of Syrian refugees into the U.S., I cannot help but wonder what would have happened to me if I had been punished for the actions of the perpetrators of the war I had fled?

The Syrian refugees are innocent victims fleeing the atrocities and violence of ISIS. They should not be punished for crimes of their persecutors.

Mohamed Abdulkadir Ali, a 2013 New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute, is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation, an organization focused on social entrepreneurship in Somalia.

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