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Advocates Make Moral, Economic Case for Welcoming Refugees

By Anna Gawel,

It’s not an easy time to be an advocate for refugees. As part of his “America First” agenda, President Trump has cracked down on immigration and drastically cut the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. Meanwhile, the European Union continues to grapple with the fallout of a refugee crisis that left EU member states sharply divided and fueled the rise of populist movements across the continent.

The political backlash comes as a record 65 million people around the world have been displaced by conflict or persecution. That makes the work of advocacy groups such as Refugees International all the more urgent, and tougher, than ever.

“Our mission is quite simple. It’s to bring the voices of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the halls of political power,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, which held its 39th anniversary dinner on April 24 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

Ambassador of Portugal Domingos Fezas Vital and his wife Isabel Fezas Vital served as the honorary chairs of the Refugees International’s 39th anniversary dinner on April 24, held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. (Photo: Refugees International)

The organization travels to countries ravaged by war or natural disaster to gather firsthand reports that they then use to push the U.S. government to increase humanitarian aid for displaced people.

“Whether we are reporting on victims of conflict in Syria and Iraq, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, internally displaced persons in Nigeria and Somalia, or policies on refugee admissions right here in the United States, our fact-finding is rigorous, our advocacy is unfettered, independent and nonpartisan,” Schwartz told the several hundred guests in the audience.

“Make no mistake. We are confronting refugee and humanitarian challenges of historic proportions in an environment that has become more hostile to the interests and the well being of refugees and others who have been forcibly displaced,” he added. “In this particular historical moment, we must fight against the demonization of refugees in our own country and remind policymakers that any responsible calculations of social and economic benefits and costs have consistently concluded that refugee resettlement is a huge win for the United States.”

Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, presents Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) with the group’s 2018 Congressional Leadership Award. (Photo: Refugees International)

The evening’s honorees stressed — and exemplified — this cost-benefit argument, along with the moral impetus of helping the world’s most vulnerable. Among the awardees was Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani. A Kurdish immigrant to the U.S. who grew up in Turkey, Ulukaya founded Chobani in 2007 with a loan from the U.S. Small Business Association. Today, it the number-one-selling Greek Yogurt brand in the United States, with more than $1 billion in annual sales. A philanthropist, Ulukaya also founded the Tent Foundation to mobilize the private sector to improve the lives of refugees and has pledged to commit the majority of his personal wealth to the cause.

Fellow honoree Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said success stories like Ulukaya’s are why the U.S. should be welcoming, not turning away, immigrants.

Klobuchar, who is often mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential nomination, fought against President Trump’s controversial travel ban last January that temporarily halted refugee admissions and banned U.S.-bound travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries (also see “Trump Makes Strides on Ambitious Immigration Agenda, for Better or Worse” in the June 2018 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

She urged compassion in a time of polarizing anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly for those displaced by Syria’s bloody seven-year civil war. She recalled a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan where she met a Syrian woman who watched the slaughter of her entire family and told her that what she’d seen “could make stones cry.”

Refugees International honored the work of Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who founded Chobani, which today is the number-one-selling Greek Yogurt brand in the United States. (Photo: Refugees International)

“There is also an economic case to make for refugees and for immigrants,” Klobuchar said, noting that 25 percent of U.S. Nobel Laureates were born in other countries and 70 of America’s Fortune 500 companies are headed by immigrants. “They are our police officers and our small-business owners, our students and teachers. They have often fled desperate and dangerous situations and we cannot turn our back on them.”

A Slovenian-American known for “trumpeting internationalism in the heartland,” Klobuchar noted that her state of Minnesota is home to a Midwestern melting pot that includes large Somali and Liberian communities.

“And our state has these incredible populations that are not just a part of our culture and the fabric of our life now, but they are also a major economic driver in our state,” she said.

That’s why she opposes Trump’s efforts to slash the number of refugees admitted to the country and end Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from countries like Honduras and Haiti. She also vowed to continue the push to protect the 700,000 so-called Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors. Last year, Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, punting the Dreamer debate to Congress, which failed to come up with a bipartisan solution that would satisfy the president.

Award-winning actor Sam Waterston welcomes guests to the Refugees International’s 39th anniversary dinner. (Photo: Refugees International)

“And we got a gut punch on that,” Klobuchar admitted. “But we have not given up on Dreamers or comprehensive immigration reform or for protecting the Temporary Protected Status of groups like the Liberians in Minnesota.

“And those of us who see our country’s strength as not diminished by refugees but in fact defined by refugees must stand up and speak out,” she added. “The work that you do in Congress and the work that we do to try to change policy, that’s the big picture. But what really makes me motivated to do this is the little picture.”

For her, that little picture came in the form of a young girl caught up in the heated anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country. Klobuchar recalled a story she heard during a visit to a Minnesota mosque about a Somali couple with two children — who had lived in the U.S. their whole lives — that were approached by a man while eating dinner at a restaurant.

“And this guy walks by the Somali family and says, ‘You four go home. You go home to where you came from.’ And the little girl looks up at her mom and she says, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go home to eat. You said we could eat out tonight.’

Writer and human rights advocate Kati Marton presents Hala al-Sarraf, executive director of the Iraq Health Access Organization (IHAO), with the Richard C. Holbrooke Leadership Award, named in honor of Marton’s late husband. At the height of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq from 2014 to 2018, when the Islamic State seized large parts of the country, IHAO provided health care, education and jobs training in places restricted to outside groups, including Anbar and Mosul. (Photo: Refugees International)

“Listen to the words of that child. She didn’t even know what he was talking about because she has only one home and that is my state and that is your state and that is the United States of America,” Klobuchar declared in her Midwestern-tinged accent.

The evening’s honorary chair, Portuguese Ambassador Domingos Fezas Vital, said his country’s long history of exploration and integration has shaped its present-day identity — and its views on immigration.

In the 1970s, because of decolonization and Portugal’s transition to democracy, the country “welcomed almost 1 million refugees, one-tenth of its population, fleeing the traumas of civil war in Africa,” he said, calling their integration a “tremendous challenge but also a great social and economic success story.” Fezas Vital also noted that more recently, Portugal offered to double the number of refugees it would accept under quotas negotiated with the EU.

He commended refugee advocates such as fellow countryman António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general who previously served as U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and other “people who remind us that refugees are not to be seen as a burden, but as an asset, not as a threat, but as threatened human beings.”

“The great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa … had a beautiful line that became a mantra for many of us in Portugal: Everything is worthwhile if the soul is not small,” the ambassador said. “Refugee International’s soul will never be small. Everything is worthwhile.”


Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.




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