From my work with Tibetan refugees while working with the Dalai Lama, to refugees from other African nations in South Africa, to the very hands on work with refugees in Jordan and here in the United States, it has become crystal clear for the need for us to increase the dialogue around the refugee situation in the world.
It seems that every week, those of us in the West are faced with a deluge of misinformation, fear-mongering and xenophobia. Here in the United States, our president has built his base through efforts to keep migrants and refugees from entering our borders. Just last week, his administration threatened to reduce the number of refugees allowed in the United States in 2020 to zero. All the while, people, many of them children, are drowning in the Mediterranean, being forced into slavery, or detained for months on end in camps or detainment centers. From Malaysia to Texas, mass graves filled with the corpses of migrants are being discovered as their families are left to worry and wonder.
Xenophobia toward refugees is a world-wide dilemma, what can we do?
I am reminded of something I first learned from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African concept of ubuntu. Father Tutu has explained this concept by saying, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
When we see refugees suffering, and we choose not to do something, isn’t that deliberately hurting them? No one chooses to be a refugee. Refugees face poverty, discrimination, starvation, physical abuse, and separation from loved ones - — but it is still better than the war or genocide they often face if they remain in their home countries.
Many of our leaders, abetted by our media, want us to be afraid of these refugees. They encourage a xenophobic attitude so that we as a society have an irrational fear of these innocents.
But we can overcome this. While working on behalf of the Archbishop, I launched a three step program for achieving world peace and the first step in that process is inner peace. We can be realistic about our fears and encourage others to overcome theirs. We can educate ourselves, learn about the refugee situation, learn about the economic facts related to immigration. We can make an effort to get to know each other without the blinders of fear that have been thrust upon us.
All of us can remember the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who was found dead on a beach off the coast of Turkey last year. That one image shifted the way that so many people throughout the world viewed the Syrian refugee crisis and humanized the issue for so many of us. But that goodwill toward the Syrian refugees ended when Paris was attacked by terrorists. Once again, an irrational fear was promoted.
But we can choose to have inner peace which will in turn allow us to change our mindset. What political messages do we listen to? Where are we getting our information? Are we choosing to feed our minds with content that subjects ourselves to fear and violence — or can we choose sources that are focused on love and peace?
It is easy to be influenced by negativity. We listen to the messages that we want to hear. When you look at a refugee, are you looking for a terrorist or a brother? Are you looking for hatred or love? By choosing to focus our minds on positivity, we not only will find happiness — we will find inner peace.
Nelson Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Those of us living in free societies need to find freedom from our mental chains, and then make an effort to welcome refugees.
But we also need to do more. Not every person can live in the U.S. or Canada or Europe. But we have the resources to help everyone in the world. The financial costs of terrorism and wars is far more than the cost of dealing with the issues that lead to refugees at their source. Most refugees don’t want to be refugees and would stay in their home countries if they could.
As long as people in the world are suffering from a lack of food, a lack of clean drinking water, a lack of education — we will have people wanting to escape those conditions. When people live with corrupt governments or a lack of care for the environment, or are denied their civil rights — those people will not have happiness.
Father Tutu is fond of saying, “We all belong to this one family, this human family, God’s family.” Are we going to fear our brothers and sisters, or are we going to learn about them, embrace them? Happiness comes from our relationships with other people. We can choose not to fear and instead to show love and compassion.
We can find peace within ourselves, share that peace with our brothers and sisters, and ultimately, it will lead to peace among nations.