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Five things to consider about Syrian refugees

Syrian refugee children in a tent settlement in Lebanon (
A few days after the news about the ISIS terror attacks in Beirut and the day after the Paris attacks, I was a judge at a high school debate tournament where the Public Forum topic was to resolve this statement: In response to the current crisis, a government should prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees over its national interests.

Timely, right?

As I listened to my daughter and her team members go over their affirmative and negative arguments in preparation for the tournament (they have to argue both), I was mesmerized. I’d forgotten what it was like to hear a conversation where both sides of such a relevant and hotly contested issue were being discussed so calmly. It’s not that my daughter and her teammates didn’t care about the topic; in fact, they each voiced their own opinions about it. But they did so in a way that was informed and respectful.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind as I’ve read through op-eds, news articles and my Facebook feed this week.

At times, it was a struggle. I traveled to Lebanon in January to collect stories from Syrian and Iraqi refugees to help raise awareness about this humanitarian crisis, which is the greatest of our era. I care a great deal about this issue.

But, as my daughter and her teammates reminded me, some of the best conversations about even the toughest of situations are informed and respectful.

As I’ve read through the news and posts, I’ve seen several themes and trends, including misinformation on both sides of the issue about the refugees, the refugee process, terrorism and the role of the church. Below is my attempt, in an informed and respectful manner, to address those.

1. No, 75 percent of Syrian refugees are not single men. Instead, most are women and children.

This figure has been floating around for several months. But, the reality is only a little over one-fifth of Syrian refugees are men between 18 and 59. As points out:
UNHCR’s data show that 50.5 percent of refugees are women. Females age 18 to 59 make up 23.9 percent of the refugees, while males in that age group make up 21.8 percent. Even younger males — age 12 to 17 — represent 6.5 percent of refugees, while females that age are 6.1 percent. The majority of refugees — 51.1 percent — are under age 17, including 38.5 percent who are younger than 12 years old. These numbers were as of Sept. 6.
The 75 percent figure is related to the European Union migrant and refugee population coming by way of the Mediterranean Sea. Again,
There have been more than 400,000 such “sea arrivals” in 2015, and 51 percent are Syrian. The rest have come mainly from nine other countries. Most of these refugees and migrants have been men — 72 percent — but these are not figures on Syrian refugees or even solely the 200,000-some Syrians who have been willing to take some type of boat to reach Europe by sea.
But now even that figure of 72 percent, as it relates to the larger migrant and refugee population in Europe, is out of date. In early September, according to UNICEF, a third of the refugees and migrants passing through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia seeking refuge in Europe were women and children—triple the number in the previous three months and up from 10 per cent in June.

And keep in mind, the vast majority of refugee and asylum requests from Syrians wishing to settle in the U.S. are not going to come from the Syrians among the European migrant and refugee population. They will come from those displaced in Syria or living in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon—a populations that mirror the UNHCR data above.

2. The refugee vetting process for EU and the U.S. are very different.

Because of the sheer numbers of refugees and migrants coming into Europe, governments are able to do little more than register passports and file the bare minimum of paperwork. The EU crisis is a little like the U.S. situation with the unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America—except multiplied many fold.

For Syrian or Iraqi refugees coming to the United States, the process is completely different. First, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, only refugees who have been referred by the UNHCR or by a U.S. embassy are eligible for the U.S. Resettlement Program. They must meet certain criteria to be eligible; if they are, they’re then interviewed by UNCIS officer overseas and go through the process of preparing resettlement application forms. If they are accepted, they must go through a process to be matched with a resettlement agency, pass a medical clearance, undergo a security clearance check—all of which can take anywhere from 18 months up to two years to complete.

So, how rigorous is the vetting process? According to Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner, it is "the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States." As I have seen more than one person put it, there are easier ways to get into the U.S. if you are a terrorist.

Could an ISIS terrorist slip through? Yes. Has a refugee ever been arrested for committing a terrorist act on U.S. soil? No. Has a former refugee ever been arrested on terrorism charges in the U.S.? It could be argued, yes. The Daily Mail and WND recently reported that upwards of 70 immigrants and a few former refugees were charged with terrorism.

But let’s put this in perspective. First, The Washington Times and New York Times both report that in the 14 years since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim extremists (which is what concerns the a large portion of those opposed to allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S.).

Second, let’s put the number of immigrants and former refugees arrested in perspective. In the last seven years, the U.S. has resettled over 490,000 refugees and 784,000 since September 11, 2001. Of the 70,000 settled in 2015, 35.1 percent were from Near East/South Asia, which includes countries like Iraqi, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. That means (if I did my math right) that immigrants and former refugees who were arrested on terrorism charges or for acts as terrorism represent something like .00009 percent of the general refugee population and--if all of them were from Near East/South Asian countries, which they weren't--.0002 percent of the Near East/South Asia population. That is low. Really, really, really low.

3. The risk of being killed in a terrorist act is also low. Really, really, really low.

The population of U.S. is almost 319 million. According to the CDC, two million people died in 2012. Out of that, about 16,000 were homicides, 128,000** accidental deaths and 40,000 suicide.

The total killed by domestic terrorism from 2001 to 2013? 3380  in 15 attacks.

In the U.S., your odds of dying from an act of terrorism are lower than just about anything else, 1 in 20 million. You are more likely to die from hypothermia (1 in 500,000), be killed by lightning (1 in 10.5 million) or mauled to death by a dog (1 in 11 million).

I am not saying there aren’t risks. And I’m definitely not saying that I don’t mourn and long for justice for victims of terrorism. I do, believe me.* But I am suggesting (like the Brookings Institute, the top rated think tank in the world) the risks of dying from a terrorist attack by a refugee are really low. Really, really, really low.

Even if we closed our borders and eliminated all domestic terrorist threats, that lowers our risk of death by murder or assault only a fraction—the risk of which was really low to begin with.

4. Being compassionate is who the people of God are called and enabled to be.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be compassionate; in fact, some of the most compassionate people I know aren’t. But if you are a follower of Jesus, a child of God and one of his people, this is who you are.

The same weekend I was a judge at my daughter’s debate tournament, I also went to church. Preaching that weekend was Camille Melki of Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based organization that provides relief services to Syrian and Iraqi refugees in that country—and the FBO that hosted me during my time there in January. His topic? What is the role of the church in the midst of the refugee crisis.

Timely, right?

The answer, says Melki, is in our citizenship in the kingdom of God. He read from Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus said:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“This is who we are in Christ and why we do what we do,” says Melki. “It is defines our DNA as citizens of heaven.”

We have no choice but to be the hands and feet of Jesus, says Melki. It is who we are to love and care for the marginalized and rejected, the homeless and poor, the sick and broken—just like Jesus.

5. It is not enough to care. We must invest.

Heart for Lebanon is not simply about providing physical relief to the refugees. “We must address poverty on all levels,” Melki says—physical, emotional and spiritual. Physical relief is only the first step on a long journey, he says. “If we leave it there,” he says, “the family simply becomes a number and the aid a product.”

Instead, Melki longs for Jesus to win their hearts. So  he and his staff live like Jesus. They invest long hours in building relationships and trust, listen to their stories, sip tea and coffee with them, celebrate their births, attend their weddings, mourn at their funerals. They do this because they love them.

“We consider each one as one of ours,” he says.

That is what it looks like to love your neighbor.

Recently, I met with a local refugee resettlement agency, and they underlined how important it is for refugees to be embraced by their communities. Churches, non-profits and social service agencies need to work together to help them settle, get back on their feet and build a new life.

My church and others in the Northern Virginia area are supporting organizations like Heart for Lebanon and working with local refugee settlement agencies to co-sponsor refugee families. We are in it for the long haul. My hope is that you will consider that, too.

*Note: I know people--people whom I love--who have lost family to or whose lives have been dramatically altered by acts of terrorism. My intention is most definitely not to diminish their pain or loss; I mourn with them. My intention is to correct misinformation and counter the fear culture that affects the way we see and live in the world. (Added 11/19/2015)

**Number changed from 137,000; addition error.