Thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey on June 14, 2015, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, in southeastern Turkey. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Four decades after Saigon fell, we still need refugees as much as they need us

(RNS) — The day Saigon fell, on April 30, 1975, my mother and her family knew they could not stay in their native Vietnam. They joined the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians who had evacuated the country to avoid massacre by the communist Viet Cong, who had captured Saigon.

As refugees, my relatives began life anew in Lafayette, Ind., where a local white evangelical church welcomed them and helped them adapt to a different culture. One Vietnam War veteran even shared his home with my mom’s family for a few months. His son later told me that this act of kindness helped his father gain a sense of purpose after surviving the trauma of war.

My grandparents went on to become homeowners, taxpayers and active volunteers at church, often cooking meals for new moms or sick people. They worked full time at local schools and sent their children to college. All of their kids grew up to be successful contributors to society. My aunt, a pharmacist, currently helps research cures for cancer at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Through it all, my grandparents remained friends with the Vietnam War veteran; he even accompanied them to their citizenship ceremony in the early 1980s. He’s in all the pictures.

I grew up hearing these stories, which inspired my own deep Christian faith and my belief that our country only stands to gain from welcoming refugees. It set me on a course to pursue my master’s degree in divinity and become the pastor of a church in the Chicago suburbs.

The church I lead is mostly white and evangelical, but we defy the media stereotype; we understand that welcoming refugees is a biblical calling.

It’s also a proud American tradition, which is why the president’s decision to trim our country’s refugee cap in 2019 feels like a terrible blow. This year, we’re facing the lowest cap ever — just 30,000 people who will be resettled on our shores — at a time when the number of displaced people in the world has reached an all-time high — including 25.4 million refugees in 2017, according to a United Nations report.

Refugees need us. But we also need them. Just as my grandparents became vital community members, refugees as a group contribute positively to our economy. The entrepreneurship rate among refugees outpaces other immigrants and U.S.-born people, according to New American Economy. Refugees earned $77.2 billion in household income and contributed $20.9 billion in taxes in 2015.

Despite the current political rhetoric that paints refugees as criminals, an NAE analysis of FBI crime statistics found that, in 9 out of 10 cities that received the most refugees between 2006 and 2015, crime rates went down.

Pastor Juliet Liu, kneeling front right with large "Welcome" sign, and members of her congregation as they welcomed Syrian refugee families to Chicago at O'Hare Airport in 2015. Photo courtesy of Life on the Vine Church


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

While our government turns away families in need, I’m paying forward the generosity shown to my mother’s family by extending compassion to two Syrian refugee families. In 2015, my congregation raised an average of $8,000 per family to cover resettlement costs and furnished our guests with everything from kitchen supplies to beds for their new homes.

At first, a small group of us showed our refugee families how to navigate public transportation and the grocery store. But now we visit as friends, enjoying their strong Syrian coffee and favorite foods like flatbread, yogurt drinks and cucumber-tomato salad.

We’ve grown close. They tell us about what they miss about their home: the sweeter, juicier Syrian apples and the fragrant jasmine that blooms in their city. We also share their anguish about their relatives still in Syria, still vulnerable to the same violence that killed their neighbors, and feel angry that new U.S. policies are keeping them apart.

Despite all they have left behind, these families are moving forward bravely, adopting the U.S. as their new home and contributing positively. One family’s oldest daughter is in college, studying to be a teacher. Her Arabic and English skills will be a tremendous asset to the public school system.

As a U.S.-born citizen, I want our country to embrace all the opportunities that come with welcoming refugees into our communities. As a wife and mother, I want to raise my family in a diverse environment where everyone feels welcome and safe. As a pastor, I want to guide my community to live out the core biblical principle of welcoming the stranger, much like the white evangelical church that embraced my mother’s family did.

God calls us all to walk with love alongside the displaced souls who need us most.

(Juliet Liu is the editorial director at Missio Alliance and the pastor of Life on the Vine church in Long Grove, Ill. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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