What if you were a refugee? Print
Youth Column
Written by Karen Osborne, Catholic News Service   
Thursday, Oct. 01, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

I was shopping at the neighborhood corner store, just minding my own business, when the cashier started to talk with his customer about the refugee crisis in Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming into Europe from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and other Middle East and African countries. They are looking for an escape from ongoing conflicts that have claimed countless lives and smashed entire cities to dust.

With nothing but the clothes on their backs, these refugees embark on an extremely dangerous voyage to find that most important of places: somewhere to belong.

That's not how some people see it, though.

"They're all dirty," said the cashier. "They'll come to America and take all of our jobs."

The customer snorted. "They're all terrorists. Muslims! Trash! They'll pollute Europe, and then they'll pollute the rest of the world! They need to go back to their holes!"

I felt I had to get involved. "What if it were you?" I asked them.

The two men looked back at me like I'd just told a room of One Direction fans that Harry Styles isn't cute.

"What if it were you? What if you'd lost everything you ever loved and just walked endless miles and crossed a dangerous sea in a tiny boat to find that people were calling you a terrorist and thought you were a monster?"

The two men had no idea what to say.

It's easy to look down at refugees and immigrants as if they are not like us. They don't have the same culture, don't speak the same language and look different.

But they are just like us.

They're high school students, teachers, fast-food servers. They own businesses and go to the movies. They listen to music and watch sports. They want to be better people. They want to hang out with their friends.

There is one difference: Their country exploded into blood, pain, and sectarian violence, while ours hasn't experienced a real war on home soil since 1865.

Here goes history, once again repeating itself. We forget the "Whites Only" signs at neighborhood pools and the "No Irish Need Apply" posted in storefronts at the turn of the 20th century. Now the signs say "No More Ragheads," and pundits say things about "all Muslims" and "all Mexicans."

It's the same old thing, turning fear of the unknown into racism and hate.

As the conversation in the corner store proved, I think we've lost a lot of empathy for our fellow human beings. The refugee crisis is taxing for countries, yes, and it strains resources, but it seems callous to turn the search for safety and love into a criminal enterprise, even as Pope Francis is telling countries to open their doors.

What if it were you? I think teens can learn a lot by asking themselves that simple question.

What if it were you fleeing war? What if it were you being teased and bullied in the cafeteria?

What if it were you struggling over homework or standing in the corner at the school dance?

What would you want others to say and do?

Certainly you wouldn't want others to reject you or label you a "monster."

When dealing with refugees -- or the refugees in your own school hallways -- the only viable method involves empathy and compassion. It involves learning about people, helping others achieve their dreams, overcoming racial and societal biases, and destroying the little silos we've built for ourselves based on color, race and identity.

Because someday it might actually be you. I'd rather live in a world that knows that.


Karen Osborne contributes to “Coming of Age,” a CNS column series for and about youth. She is a staff writer for the Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y..

 
 

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