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The United States has a proud history of welcoming refugees into this country. Ever since World War II, our country has offered refuge to displaced persons and those fleeing persecution from all over the world. Over the past forty years, the U.S. has safely welcomed over 3 million refugees into our communities. These refugees, including my own family and many other Asian American families, have built new lives and contributed to the vibrancy of communities across our nation.
Refugees from all over the world have had their lives turned upside down. I know this experience firsthand because my family and I came to this country in 1979 after the Vietnam War. I was two years old when we left Laos. My father supported American efforts in Laos to stop the spread of Communism and we had to flee to refugee camps in Thailand. Though I don’t remember it, my mother tells me of how we traveled through the jungle for months to make it to Thailand. She weeps when she tells me of the young children that died in the jungle and how grateful she is that I survived.
When we arrived in Thailand, we stayed in a refugee camp for almost two years as our cases were processed for resettlement to the United States. We were eventually resettled in Detroit, Michigan by Lutheran Social Services with the support of family and the kindness of average Americans. It’s been 35 years since I was first resettled and it is that experience that led me to commit my life’s work to public service.
Like my family, today’s refugees are fleeing their homes in fear for their lives. Syrian refugees are victims of terrorism, civil war, and strife. The U.S. refugee resettlement program has the ability to give a small number of these refugees a new start, and can do so in a manner that also safeguards the American public. Refugee applicants undergo intensive layers of screening and vetting; to date, not one Syrian refugee resettled in the United States has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges. We cannot give in to fear or treat people differently because of race, ethnicity, or religion. We must support refugees in finding safety, stability, and prosperity for themselves and their families because those are our values as Americans.
We applaud the many governors and mayors in cities and states across the country who have demonstrated true leadership by welcoming refuges into their communities. They understand, as does President Obama, that refugees are seeking peace and security and that they add to the richness of our great nation. By opening their arms to refugees, these communities represent the fundamental values of our nation: compassion, tolerance, and acceptance for all.
Doua Thor is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.