In 8th grade, I was struggling with friends. I felt alone and disconnected from my peers, and school didn’t interest me. Halfway through the school year, a new student arrived. She was from Iraq and had moved to the United States a couple of years prior.
Over the course of the rest of the year, we both took comfort in our friendship after associating with the wrong crowds, and we leaned on each other for emotional support. We bonded over politics, exchanged our thoughts on culture, and gushed over the TV show “Once Upon a Time.” As I got to know her better, I learned she and her family fled violence in their home country, and the U.S. was one of the last places they could turn.
The countries surrounding Iraq were maxed to capacity with helping displaced people, and Europe was already struggling with a cultural mix of refugees and their own citizens.
Countries around the world have been affected by the enormous humanitarian crises happening just outside their borders. The people who are on the other side of that border have faced horrors too awful to explain, and are quickly running out of resources to help them.
But America has been hesitant to lend a hand.
Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their home country in order to avoid imminent death from a variety of circumstances, the most common being war. For clarification, an asylum seeker is someone in a similar situation but hasn’t had their application to gain official refugee status accepted, whereas refugees have been approved.
Over the past couple of years, the world has seen a significant uptick in the number of refugees; the United Nations Refugee Agency has found that today, every 1 in 110 people is a refugee. (The numbers and statistics for refugees are ever changing, as this is an ongoing issue that is difficult to keep track of and report on globally.)
How do we deal with all these displaced people? The U.S. has an annual cap on the number of refugees allowed in, and it’s always filled. Former President Barack Obama set it at 110,000 before he left office.
This policy was created after the Vietnam War when refugees were flooding into the U.S. in enormous numbers. Congress needed a way to help the country deal with this new influx of people, so they created the Refugee Act of 1980. Since then, every year the president of the United States gets to determine how many refugees come into the country. But some would say we shouldn’t be allowing them in at all.
Earlier in his presidency, Donald Trump signed the travel ban. Countries included in it currently are: Venezuela, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. All are dealing with serious, often violent, conflicts. Because of this and other policies he has made, such as reducing the cap of new refugees allowed to 45,000 for 2018, the amount of refugees allowed into America has sharply declined; the amount admitted to Maine specifically was halved last year.
This raises the question: who are the people who are now arriving?
According to the U.S. State Department, 3,793 refugees have been directly settled in Maine since 2002 to 2016, not including those who arrived first in another state and then moved, or asylum seekers.
A vast majority of refugees in Maine have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. War has plagued all of these countries, setting the stage for some of the worst conflicts the 21st century has seen.
Maine’s population has been declining for years, and the average age for a Mainer today is 45. If nothing changes, our state will continue its slow march towards collapse. Maine based organizations and religious entities, such as Catholic Charities, have been embracing the new influx of people, helping them adjust to American culture and become active and productive members of our society. Some people hope they will become U.S. citizens and help reverse Maine’s population decline and boost the economy with more workers and business.
Other Mainers disagree, saying refugees are threatening to erase Maine culture and should stay in their home countries to help solve the problems there.
Refugees do not voluntarily leave their country. They did not initially want to come to the U.S.; there were no other options. Because we have taken them in, we’ve helped them learn about our culture and gain a better understanding and appreciation of our country.
I’ve had to opportunity to get to know my friend’s family from Iraq, who have come to love the multiculturalism our country has established. Everyone benefits from this, as with more cultural understanding comes fewer conflicts and stabilized peace between communities.
One interesting piece of information that was seemingly lost in time, is that when French-Canadian immigrants came into Maine; the Irish-Americans were not welcoming and abused them. They were afraid the newcomers would erase their culture and identity.
Instead what happened was the French-Canadians boosted the economy and enhanced Maine culture. They also worked diligently in the factories of the time, helping Maine to stay competitive with other states. They also made beautiful French a second language in many towns and introduced terrific new food to Americans. You can still find Irish influence today in restaurants and older companies. The influx of foreigners in the early to mid-1900s helped Maine, not hindered it.
Maine is at a precipice. We can go into the ways of old and reject the newcomers from Africa and the Middle East, or we can set a precedent. A woman I met while writing this article said it best: “A person who is a refugee is seeking refuge, they only want a safe place to rest and recover. It is moral to love them; they are just like us.”
“The new kid” from Iraq had offered me friendship in one of my hardest times. Now, nearly two years later, we’re best friends, and I wouldn’t wish for anything to be different. In one of our latest conversations, I may have accidentally signed up to try eating a sheep’s brain. Though this certainly is outside my culinary comfort zone, I know that my friend and her culture is only making my life here in Maine much, much richer.
Kathryn B. Morin is a student at Gorham High School and is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.