I attended middle and high school in Stockholm, Sweden; a large percentage of my classmates were refugees or children of refugees. They were from Somalia, Iran, Bosnia, Ukraine and Georgia, among other places.
Sweden has a long history of accepting refugees, and this history was not lost on my public schools or me. My schools, however, were somewhat unique: The language of instruction was English, not Swedish, and most of my classmates were either international students, multinational students with ties to Sweden (like me), or Swedes who had lived abroad with their families. This diversity had a huge influence on me, so much so that I was more surprised when a new student was Swedish than if he or she was a refugee.
Within this context, I understood that there were key differences between me and my classmates whose families had sought and been granted asylum. They had experienced fear of persecution on the basis on religion, race or ethnicity or political opinion. They sought, survived for and moved for something that I had always had at my fingertips: Swedish citizenship. And, based on what my parents taught me, I also knew that my dual American and Swedish citizenship was an immense privilege that afforded me uninhibited choice, mobility and relative safety.
At school, my understanding of this privilege deepened. Social studies lessons taught me about the differences among citizens, migrants, stateless peoples, asylum-seekers and refugees—and why these differences matter. Geography lessons taught me about the history of nation-states, natural disasters, colonialism, war, civil war and diasporas. World religions lessons taught me about major religions, majority and minority religions in specific regions and religious persecution. All of this information was critical—remains critical—to my understanding of the who, what, why, when, where and how of refugee crises.
Today, it saddens me to see the pervasive xenophobia directed toward refugees in the United States and abroad. This fear obliterates refugees’ experiences, reifying them as this perpetual “other.” It demonizes rather than protects. It criticizes rather than embraces. It promulgates misinformation rather than understanding. It sidetracks from the who, what, why, when, where and how of refugee crises.
In mid-November, Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama, the state I live in, issued a press release in which he stated, “After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way. … Please continue to join me in praying for those who have suffered loss and for those who will never allow freedom to fade at the hands of terrorists.”
As I read this statement, sad, angry tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought back to my middle and high schools. How would my peers have reacted? What would I have been taught about the Syrian refugee crisis? What would my teachers have told us?
What I learned from my teachers allowed me to see that Gov. Bentley’s message rested on a dangerous—and false—binary of “us” versus “them,” drawn in part along racial, cultural and religious lines. His statement also offered no context for why people are fleeing Syria, nor compassion for their suffering, their loss or their faded freedoms. It cast Syrian refugees as the “them” and gave “us” permission to be afraid and unwelcoming.
I refuse to stand complicit in the “us” camp.
If we want to live in a world that truly values all people, we need to expose the fault lines of harmful us-versus-them binaries. We need to stand up against anti-refugee sentiments and narratives, and to extend our support to the refugees in our communities. And we must equip ourselves with important information that can help us understand these humanitarian crises for what they are.
These lessons need to be learned and relearned; educators have an essential role to play. What can you do to help your students understand the who, what, why, when, where and how of refugee crises?
Lindberg is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.
Submitted by Maya Lindberg on January 5, 2016