Can Philanthropy help fix the refugee crisis?

Beyond the headlines, the noise and clamor that we hear about immigration is a rather simple question: How will we welcome the stranger? The one who is unknown, perhaps vulnerable?  The question of refugees is also ultimately about us, especially those living in countries where refugees come to. The U.S, Europe and the Gulf nations have come under intense scrutiny in the past few weeks and will continue to be questioned by media pundits and experts who pay attention to this issue. I believe that the way policy makers and politicians (and civil society) addresses these questions will ultimately define who ‘we’ are. It is as much a matter of self-definition, as it is about dealing with the problem ‘out there.’ Let me explain.

Photo credit : www.fleetfeetstuart.com
Photo credit : http://www.fleetfeetstuart.com

Robert Wuthnow, one of the most well-known Sociologist in the U.S. argues that the stories that we tell ourselves. For instance, he says that they narratives or the ‘American mythos’ often lead us to believe that we are more generous than we are. He adds ‘the deep meanings of these stories provide us with common ways of thinking about who we are. At the same time, they bias our perceptions. For instance, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we really are. They result in ideas about how to escape from materialism and consumerism that are usually more wishful than effective.’ Wuthnow reminds us that since 1965, we have had over 22 million people enter the U.S. legally and about 8 million by other means. Consequently, this also has shaped the demographics of the country, bringing in more diversity. Our values regarding acceptance of people who are different from us have also changed. We are in a ‘New America’ of sorts – that is less white, less Protestant, more Hindu, more Muslim and more tolerant of these differences.

Speaking of civil society responses to the immigration issue, here is a recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal. In this piece, the author makes the claim that private, civil society responses to welcoming and taking care of immigrants has worked in the past. For about a decade, the State Department even allowed it in the U.S. but apparently the program was stopped due to lack of agreement on who should come. Also, I am assuming this changed after 9/11 and the scare of potential terrorists coming to the U.S. In my own personal experience, U.S. immigration is one of the hardest in the world and as a migrant from India, my own experience was quite difficult; even though I came through all the ‘proper’ channels, as an international student.

The WSJ article says that the delays in processing immigrants – and it can take upto 18 months for a refugee to get here involve paper work- for reasons that are entirely based on potential worse case scenarios, that the refugees are all potential terrorists. So, the framing of a refugee as a terrorist is in place and is extremely hard to combat, even if it is a three year old child. How can philanthropists overcome this framing, unless they spend enormous amount of money battling this policy framing? This is a question that the article does not address. Civil society has its limits, which are often defined by the state.

In Wuthnow’s view, the reason that we are unable to live to our promises is because our assumptions of who we are, often go unexamined. For instance, he argues that America is considered a ‘land of opportunities’ but at the same time, this myth goes unexamined. The stories we tell ourselves, about who we are he says ‘They are fundamentally about morality.’ He further points out that the very process of coming to the U.S . is one of renewal for those who come and also the society here. It has the potential to renew democracy, even.

If the process of immigration is about renewal and philanthropy is about individual values acting out in the public sphere, as Peter Frumkin argues, then there should be a role for philanthropists to address the refugee crisis. While there are pockets of groups in the U.S. and other countries, that are tackling the challenges, I would hazard a guess and say that current policies in place in EU and the U.S. restrict how much individuals and groups can participate in this process. Perhaps it is time to re-look at these policies and see if there is room for private intervention?

I will end with the question I started this article with: How we respond to the present crisis will be shaped by how we think of ourselves, as people. Also, equally importantly, this is a question of values and morality, as Wuthnow reminds us. It is not about pure rationality or logic.or this reason, I think philanthropy can have a huge impact on how refugees are rehabilitated and also find long-term opportunities. ACCESS, a MI based NGO, which has been working with recent immigrants for over 40 years offers an example of what can positively be accomplished. This is borrowing from Wuthnow’s insight that ultimately, many of our failures in solving social problems boil down to unexamined cultural assumptions. The assumption that is of interest to me is that governments should solve all of these problems. The second one is that the refugee is someone to be feared.  At the present moment, these two assumptions about how we treat the ‘stranger’ in our midst and our own philanthropic motives and its impact can shape what we end up doing, as a matter of policy.

Creating a positive ‘identity’ for refugees?

In most media discourses, Refugees are constructed  as pathological creatures. The entire discourse of refugees and their plight is portrayed as something of a ‘problem to be fixed.’ While it is true that most refugees are in need of desperate help and do, over a short period of time, burden the economy of any host country; but research has shown – and common sense should tell us – that over a long period of time, refugees are a boon to any place where they go.

As this OpEd in NY Times points out, refugees contribute to the revitalization of economies. As a former resident of upstate NY, I saw the impact of this phenomenon. Most of the refugees settled there are independent, self-sufficient and actually quite wealthy, all in a matter of less than 20 years. That is just one generation. Bosnians fleeing the Balkan war are among the refugees who live in this region and are among the prosperous communities there.

photo credit : womenoftheworld.org
photo credit : womenoftheworld.org

Similarly, when media accounts of refugees portray them as helpless victims, who are in perpetual need of assistance, the reality is quite different. As they are fleeing persecution, they are also deeply conscious of the need to re-build their lives and are eager to take up any opportunity that comes their way. As the NYT OpEd mentioned earlier points out “A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.” This goes against our popular understandings of what refugees do, and how ‘dependent’ they are on welfare.

This bias is not only present in media discourses, but also scholarly literature on Arab-Americans in general and refugees in particular. I came across this phenomenon, as I was researching the issue for a policy brief, that I am writing, as part of my work at ACCESS. Why is this cognitive bias present? Is it because the dominant framing of refugees is set? It is set – in terms of framing them as helpless, without agency and will power? – as essentially victims who are not capable of shaping their destiny? While this is part of the story, it is not the entire story. True, they are helpless ( for the time-being) but are not without agency or will power. The Syrian refugees, for instance, are taking enormous risks, putting their lives in danger, to move to a safer area, to live and prosper. This shows not only their resilience and determination to fight against all odds, but also their imagination and ability to think outside of the box.

America should embrace this positive energy and will to live. It is what has made the U.S . a great country and it is what drives innovation and change. It is time we all re-examine the dominant narratives of the refugees as a burden and look at them for what they are – victims of circumstances, who will thrive, in the right environment. It is our duty, as decent human beings to help them find this environment.