9 Common Misunderstandings about Refugees

My high school youth ministry is currently in the midst of a series about “war and peace”. Thus far, we've discussed why religion seems to cause so many wars, genocide, and refugees.

As a whole, teens in my youth ministry have a pretty high cultural intelligence. They're aware of world events, actively engaged in refugee ministry, and genuinely attempting to understand other people and cultures. Many have even been to a refugee camp in Rwanda.

Even so, throughout our discussion the other night, several common misunderstandings about refugees surfaced. What I've discovered after having been involved in refugee ministry for more than a decade, is that these nine misunderstandings are prevalent in our culture, in both teens and adults alike.

1. Refugees and immigrants are all the same. All refugees are immigrants; Not all immigrants are refugees. Refugees are a special sub-class of immigrants who didn't choose to immigrate but instead were forced to leave their country for fear of their life. One of the most powerful moments of the refugee discussion I recently had with my high school students came when one teen realized this and admitted how often she'd lumped the two together and how different they really are.

2. The primary goal of a refugee is to get to the United States. First of all, no one ever chooses to become a refugee. Refugees are people who are forced to flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for their religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. The goal of every refugee I've ever met is to return home. Most love their country of origin and dream of one day returning to it. As a result, most refugees struggle with the decision to even apply for resettlement in another country, knowing that should they choose to do so, they're essentially giving up their dream of returning home. When refugees decide to resettle, they're seldom given any say as to which country they'll go to.

3. If we keep allowing refugees to resettle in the United States, our country will be overrun. At the end of 2013, there were ~16.7 million refugees in the world. (Note: This statistic varies widely because of how difficult it can be to track refugees. It's much higher when you also include displaced people in this group). Only a small percentage of refugees are resettled worldwide each year, fewer still in the US. Each year, the US sets a refugee quota establishing how many refugees will be admitted for resettlement. For example, in 2012, the ceiling for refugee resettlements in the US was 76,000 people. In actuality, less than 58,000 refugees were resettled in the US that year. In truth, we rarely come anywhere close to hitting the refugee ceiling set by the government. 

4. When we allow refugees to resettle in the United States, we run the risk of letting terrorists into our country. This is an argument I often hear against allowing refugees – in particular – those from the Middle East into the United States. Interestingly enough, far from being terrorists, many of the Iraqi refugees who have been resettled in the United States actually became refugees because they chose to work for us, rather than against us. That said, it's extremely difficult for refugees to come to America. Among other things, they must pass both health and security checks before even being considered for resettlement. Security checks often include in-person interviews – something that based on what I've heard from refugees, sound far more like interrogations than interviews.

Kiziba Streets

5. All refugees are the same. Thanks to the limited coverage the media gives refugees, most Americans picture refugees as Africans living in tents in refugee camps. To be sure, there are some refugees who fit this description. However, not all refugee camps use tents as their major form of shelter. This depends entirely on a region's climate and supplies. For example: The camp I've visited – Kiziba Refugee Camp in Rwanda - is comprised entirely of mud huts, with the stereotypical UNHCR tarps being used only as roofs for these shelters. Elsewhere, as in the case of the Iraqi refugees that my teens recently learned about, refugees flee to neighboring countries and settle in low-rent apartments until their money runs out. In short, refugees come from different countries and cultures for very different reasons.

6. Refugees are dumb. Because English is the second (or third or fourth or fifth language) for many refugees, Americans often perceive refugees as “dumb”. Refugees are often highly educated people – doctors, lawyers, bankers, journalists, and the like. Unfortunately, academic credits and professional credentials seldom transfer to the United States, something that typically leaves even those refugees with advanced degrees working minimum wage factory jobs, struggling to survive here.

7. Refugees are a drain on our welfare system. In actuality, refugees are given very little aid. Even the airline ticket used to transport a refugee from wherever they're coming from to the United States is a loan. Once in the United States, refugees receive ~3 months of aid. During that period, their food, housing, and medical care is provided. By the end of that 3 months, refugees are expected to be gainfully employed and essentially self-sufficient.

8. Refugee teens are hoodlums. Our fear of those who differ from us make us assume strange things about the “other”. Most refugees teens are as far from “hoodlum” status as you can get. Instead, they're often some of the most responsible teens out there. Why? Because they're often the ones doing the parenting in their families because their English is far more advanced than their parents. Additionally, many refugee families depend on teens for financial support and hope for their future. For this reason, refugee teens typically work hard in school and at their places of employment, striving to get ahead so they can support not only themselves but their entire family.

9. When refugees live in your community, the crime rate goes up. I'm amazed at how often I hear this. Just because people look different than us doesn't mean they're criminals. As one of my high school teens put it the other night. “Aren't these people fleeing their homeland in terror? Isn't what they want most safety and security? I doubt they're trying to come here to hatch a life of crime.” What's more, if a refugee is convicted of a crime, they risk deportation, even if they'd be in grave danger in their home country. That's something no refugee is willing to risk. Rather than devaluing a community, refugees add tremendous value and diversity to them.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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