Yesterday I was wrapping up my blog on the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of an immigration attorney and my daughter Olivia sat with me the entire time and watched me work. I explained to her that I was trying to help people have a better understanding of how important it is for us to continue to help refugees who are suffering and that we have the right facts about how we screen them coming into this country so we can be safe.
I explained to her that these suffering people are running from ISIS, civil war, persecution, hunger, death and misery. I told to her that a lot of people in our nation are afraid to let them into our country because they think some of them might be bad people like ISIS who are disguised as refugees. I asked Olivia to give me her opinion as a child as to what she thought we as a nation should do about the suffering Syrian refugees who need our help. Keep in mind she only nine years old, but you see her heart come through. Often we lose that heart as we get older. Here is what she come up with.
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Hi! My name is Olivia,
I am here too talk about what I think people could do to help the Syrian Refugees. Maybe we could build big shelters and take about nine big planes get the Refugees! The shelter needs lots of toys and fun stuff for the kids. Food and beds for everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂
Here is why I think we need to let Refugees in the U.S.A.
They are people.
They are struggling and suffering.
Their lives are at risk.
Everybody needs people looking out for each other because we are all God’s children and God’s children are brothers and sisters and this means everyone is important.
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Olivia reminds us in a childlike way that God designed humanity to be a global family. A family that looks out for each other. God has a dream for this world. Part of his dream is “peace on earth and good will towards all people.” He dreams of the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed and the weakest among us being taken care of by the strongest.
Unfortunately, I do not hear many sermons on this from the pulpits these days. Perhaps we just do not believe those words any more or is it possible that we just do not trust or believe in the raw message of Jesus to be a viable answer to deep needs of our world today.
As I read and reflected on Olivia’s comments, I thought I would include a photo album of these precious suffering Syrian refugees who Olivia believes are our brothers and sisters who deeply need our help. Take some time to look them in the eyes and see them with your hearts. Say a prayer for them and maybe make a donation to a group that is trying to help them.
A few days ago I was coming home and I noticed that two of our neighbors’ cats were posturing themselves for a major cat fight. I knew that bloodshed was imminent. I could not just turn the other way and just let this happen. Turning the other way and pretending not to see problems and being unwilling to work for viable solutions seems to be normative in our culture. But I have chosen to be a person of action. I got out of my car and stood between the cats and said to them, “Okay you two just settle down. You guys are not going to fight today.” Then I picked up Mabel, our next door neighbor’s cat, and made her go home.
Unbeknownst one of my neighbors was watching this whole drama. He started laughing at me and said, “There goes the peacemaker. He just can’t help himself. He’s always honing his skills. Even if it’s with cats.” I smiled back at him and said, “I’m just trying to prevent bloodshed.”
A Catalyst For Peace
Most people who know me identify me as a life coach and a peacemaker. I prefer to see myself as more a catalyst for peace than a peacemaker. I bring people and resources together, and once they are working together as friends for the common good I move on. I am constantly looking for win/win solutions and how people who are stuck in polarized positions can become friends and build a better future together.
As I blog I want to bring you fresh perspectives on important issues and provide you with practical resources for your consideration so that you can make better informed decisions. I am not asking you to agree with everything I say, but to be willing to listen to differing opinions and perhaps work with others who are different from you to create a better reality. A reality that could not have been created through ideological conformity and intellectual polarization. Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” I believe Einstein would include the current Syrian refugee crisis if he were here today.
The controversial subject of the U.S. taking in more Syrian refugees is an issue that is dividing our country. Good and intelligent people on both sides have strong opinions and convictions as to what our nation should do. I submit to you an opinion of someone who is worthy of your consideration.
An Immigration Attorney Weighs In
Scott Hicks, is an immigration attorney and Christian minister. As someone who is an expert in Immigration law and part of the vetting process for refugees coming into this country he gives us a unique perspective on how the process of entry actually works. Also, he also addresses the validity of the security concerns around the refugee vetting process for the U.S. I hope you find his letter that he posted on Facebook helpful. Thank you Scott for being willing to let me post your comments.
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Most of my friends know I practice Immigration law. As such, I have worked with the refugee community for over two decades. This post is long, but if you want actual information about the process, keep reading.
I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to see the misinformation and outright lies that are being perpetuated about the refugee process and the Syrian refugees. So, here is a bit of information from the real world of someone who actually works and deals with this issue.
The refugee screening process is multi-layered and is very difficult to get through. Most people languish in temporary camps for months to years while their story is evaluated and checked.
First, you do not get to choose what country you might be resettled into. If you already have family (legally) in a country, that makes it more likely that you will go there to be with family, but other than that it is random. So, you cannot simply walk into a refugee camp, show a document, and say, I want to go to America. Instead, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) works with the local authorities to try to take care of basic needs. Once the person/family is registered to receive basic necessities, they can be processed for resettlement. Many people are not interested in resettlement as they hope to return to their country and are hoping that the turmoil they fled will be resolved soon. In fact, most refugees in refugee events never resettle to a third country. Those that do want to resettle have to go through an extensive process.
Resettlement in the U.S. is a long process and takes many steps. The Refugee Admissions Program is jointly administered by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the Department of State, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within DHS conducts refugee interviews and determines individual eligibility for refugee status in the United States.
We evaluate refugees on a tiered system with three levels of priority.
First Priority are people who have suffered compelling persecution or for whom no other durable solution exists. These individuals are referred to the United States by UNHCR, or they are identified by the U.S. embassy or a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Second priority are groups of “special concern” to the United States. The Department of State determines these groups, with input from USCIS, UNHCR, and designated NGOs. At present, we prioritize certain persons from the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Burma, and Bhutan.
Third priority are relatives of refugees (parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21) who are already settled in the United States may be admitted as refugees. The U.S.-based relative must file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) and must be processed by DHS.
Before being allowed to come to the United States, each refugee must undergo an extensive interviewing, screening, and security clearance process conducted by Regional Refugee Coordinators and overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs). Individuals generally must not already be firmly resettled (a legal term of art that would be a separate article). Just because one falls into the three priorities above does not guarantee admission to the United States.
The Immigration laws require that the individuals prove that they have a “well-founded fear,” (another legal term which would be a book.) This fear must be proved regardless of the person’s country, circumstance, or classification in a priority category. There are multiple interviews and people are challenged on discrepancies. I had a client who was not telling the truth on her age and the agency challenged her on it. Refugees are not simply admitted because they have a well founded fear. They still must show that they are not subject to exclusion under Section 212(a) of the INA. These grounds include serious health matters, moral or criminal matters, as well as security issues. In addition, they can be excluded for such things as polygamy, misrepresentation of facts on visa applications, smuggling, or previous deportations. Under some circumstances, the person may be eligible to have the ground waived.
At this point, a refugee can be conditionally accepted for resettlement. Then, the RSC sends a request for assurance of placement to the United States, and the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) works with private voluntary agencies (VOLAG) to determine where the refugee will live. If the refugee does have family in the U.S., efforts will be made to resettle close to that family.
Every person accepted as a refugee for planned admission to the United States is conditional upon passing a medical examination and passing all security checks. Frankly, there is more screening of refugees than ever happens to get on an airplane. Of course, yes, no system can be 100% foolproof. But if that is your standard, then you better shut down the entire airline industry, close the borders, and stop all international commerce and shipping. Every one of those has been the source of entry of people and are much easier ways to gain access to the U.S. Only upon passing all of these checks (which involve basically every agency of the government involved in terrorist identification) can the person actually be approved to travel.
Before departing, refugees sign a promissory note to repay the United States for their travel costs. This travel loan is an interest-free loan that refugees begin to pay back six months after arriving in the country.
Once the VOLAG is notified of the travel plans, it must arrange for the reception of refugees at the airport and transportation to their housing at their final destination. This process from start to finish averages 18 to 24 months, but I have seen it take years.
The reality is that about half of the refugees are children, another quarter are elderly. Almost all of the adults are either moms or couples coming with children. Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, the proposed ceiling is 85,000. We have been averaging about 70,000 a year for the last number of years. (Source: Refugee Processing Center)
Over one-third of all refugee arrivals (35.1 percent, or 24,579) in FY 2015 came from the Near East/South Asia—a region that includes Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Another third of all refugee arrivals (32.1 percent, or 22,472) in FY 2015 came from Africa. Over a quarter of all refugee arrivals (26.4 percent, or 18,469) in FY 2015 came from East Asia — a region that includes China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. (Source: Refugee Processing Center)
Finally, the process in Europe is different. I would be much more concerned that terrorists are infiltrating the European system because they are not nearly so extensive and thorough in their process.
This is what fear does in our country. Some people claim we are a Christian nation which I do not believe is true. But if that is what millions in this country claim that we are then we have to reject the spirit of fear.
As Christians we have to stand against fear and choose the path of love and reason. The path we are on now could eventually lead to arresting innocent people, destruction of property and businesses, and charities of people different than us. In my opinion, this would be a nullification of the Bill of Rights.
If we as Christians stand back and let our Muslim friends rights be violated then it is just a matter of time when we lose ours. We cannot have it both ways. God bless our freedom! God bless the Bill of Rights! God bless our country and may it always be a land for all its people.
I give you the words of the famous statement and provocative poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. If we let this happen to the Muslims or any minority group in our country then eventually it will happen to us.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I found this to be a helpful article on the backlash of fear of Muslims and Syrian refugees in the U.S. in light of the Paris terrorist attacks.
I found this really cool website called We Welcome Refugees. I am so encouraged by their desire to take the message of Jesus seriously in their efforts to help solve this global crisis.
No doubt there are many Americans who are concerned that if we let more refugees into the country we are in danger of letting “sleeper terrorists” slip in among us. Others may feel that the refugee crisis is just too big and we do not have the power or resources to do anything about it. This website does a great job of attempting to address these questions and more. Here is the link to their questions section. I encourage you to at least check it out and maybe make a donation. We Welcome Refugees
Also, they have a section on their website they have a section called “Now Is The Churches Moment.” It will give you a list of organizations to choose from to help refugees. One of my favorites is World Relief. They have a proven track record with helping refugees. Samaritan’s Purse is also leading the way in this crisis. Rev. Mike Slaughter and the United Methodist Church Rev. Mike Slaughter and the United Methodist Church are planning a major Christmas project to raise over 2 million dollars to help refugees. If you prefer a more secular route the The United Nations Help Refugees would be a good consideration. Just do something!
Coming from an Evangelical Christian background I grew up having a deep respect for the Bible. After being a follower of Jesus for almost 40 years I have come to the conclusion that we as Christians in this country either take the words of Jesus seriously or we become atheists. I cannot stomach a Christian faith that teaches me to love God, but turn my neighbor away if he or she is an atheist, Muslim, Gay or a Syrian refugee.
I want a Christianity that is real. I want a living faith I can sink my teeth into. Many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters are putting their lives, resources, and reputations on the line as they serve the marginalized and hurting of this world. Their love knows no borders nor do they discriminate as they serve unconditionally. There are others, however, who seem to have forgotten what Jesus said about loving our neighbor, helping the suffering and stranger among us and those desperately trying to survive on the margins of of our society and in war zones around the world. Our Lord said:
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I WAS A STRANGER, AND YOU INVITED ME INTO YOUR HOME. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited.
No Christian who claims to be a follower of Jesus can get around these words. They are either true or they are not. What we do with Jesus command determines whether or not we are his followers.
The Politics of Jesus
I have been studying the Bible all my life. I have a bachelors degree in Pastoral Studies and Philosophy, a Masters of Divinity, and an earned doctorate that I completed in 2013. I was an Evangelical minister for 18 years. I am familiar with this wonderful book called the Bible. As an Evangelical I was taught that the Bible was to be read through the centrality of Christ’s teaching, but as I look at the political landscape of Christians both on the Right and the Left I am convinced that if Jesus ran for public office and declared his domestic and foreign policies we would destroy him in the media as a dreamer and idealist. We would probably declare that his message is not relevant to American life today.
Jesus made it clear as to what he believed was the most important central truth of the entire Bible. He said that we must love the Lord our God with all our being, love our neighbor as ourselves, treat other people the way we want to be treated and if we find an enemy we should try to turn him into a friend. There is no way around this. I believe Jesus message applies even if my neighbor is an atheist, Muslim, Gay, or a Syrian refugee who needs a home and a sanctuary. We just cannot get around the politics of Jesus. The Mennonites have been saying this for 500 years.
Applying Jesus Message To The Syrian Crisis
So what do with do with the 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from ISIS, president Assad and now the Russians? My friend Lynne Hybels, a leading Evangelical humanitarian, peacemaker and human rights activist has written an outstanding article on how Christians and other concerned human beings can follow Jesus by helping our desperate brothers and sisters whose lives have been destroyed by the war in Syria. I strongly encourage you to open your hearts and minds to what she has to say and ask God how you can follow Jesus in helping these refugees in very relevant ways. Feeling Paralyzed by the Migrant Crisis in Europe? Here Are Some Practical Ways You Can Help. — Lynne Hybels
This challenge from my seven year old daughter to help Meriam would take me on an amazing adventure I would never forget.
When I asked my seven year old daughter Olivia what she thought about me going to Sudan to try to help Meriam Ibrahim, her response surprised me. She said, “Dad, are you kidding me? Do you even have to think about this? You have to go and try to help Meriam and her babies! Oceana, my wife supported me 100% on this mission.
Back Story: Two Days Before Olivia’s Challenge
I had received several emails from individuals requesting that I attempt to do something about the impending trial and execution of Meriam Ibrahim of Sudan, who was scheduled to be executed for adultery and apostasy. The story of her case had become an international sensation. “If you are going to be a serious peacemaker then you need to do something about helping this woman,” was the gist of some emails I was receiving. I wondered what I could possibly do in a nation frowned upon by the U.S. government. A nation in Africa that was 11,000 miles from me in North Carolina.
My Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig, an Islamic scholar, peacemaker and friend, had received calls and emails from both Muslims and Christians to see what he could do as an American citizen who was also from the Sudan.
It was in mid-May of 2015 when Abdel called saying I needed to travel with him to Sudan by May 27th because Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan, had agreed to meet with us in Khartoum concerning Meriam’s case. He said that we would also meet with some key individuals in the judicial system to discuss Meriam’s situation, and who could help us understand the legal complexities of this case that you never heard about in the media. I was glad that Abdel and I would be taking this journey together. He was a peacemaker and expert in Islamic sharia law and he knew all of these key governmental officials.
Become The Answer To Your Own Prayers
I literally could not believe this was happening. My head was spinning. I thought to myself, “Who am I to stand before these men?” I had been praying for Meriam for several months before this happened. I asked God to help her and to send people to do something about this. It did not enter into my wildest imagination that God would ask me to become the answer to my prayers. All I had was great love and confirmation in prayer from the Lord that I must go.
Meeting With The Foreign Minister
The following is shared with the permission of Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan
While I was in the Sudan it was my highest privilege to meet with Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan. He was the third most influential leader in Sudan. There has also been a great deal of controversy concerning his involvement in the Darfur crisis. We had a wonderful meeting together that lasted for several hours. Believe it or not we spent a good chunk of that time talking about Jesus and how Muslims and Christians can find a common bridge of connection in him, but the main focus of our conversation concerned Meriam.
The Foreign Minister made it clear to me that he did not agree with the lower court ruling concerning Meriam’s case. In fact he was surprised that it even got as far as it did. He said there were many interfaith marriages in the Sudan, so this ruling was a shock to him and to many Muslims and Christians in the Sudan.
He went on to explain to me how there were many diverse Islamic rulings that could have been chosen in a case like this, but for some reason the lower court went with this most severe one. He said to me that there had not been an apostasy ruling like this one in decades and that particular court case had nothing to do with interfaith marriage. He believed that this ruling was not a relevant Islamic legal option for modern Sudan today. He also believed that the ruling was unconstitutional because the constitution of the Sudan guarantees, in principle, religious freedom for all of its citizens.
I was told that under Islamic law a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman but a Christian woman, cannot marry a Muslim man. It still happens and in some instances the marriages are eventually accepted by the families, but in situations where they are not accepted the families simply cut off relationships with the couple. Meriam had a Christian mother and a Muslim father. Although he left Meriam and her mother when she was a small child this was the first instance that Foreign Minister knew of where an interfaith marriage in Sudan was being challenged on the grounds of apostasy in a Sudanese court.
Foreign Minister Karti went on to say that the firestorm that Meriam’s case had caused around the world was good for the Sudan. Some Muslim judicial leaders, scholars, politicians and clerics in the Sudan were saying that this case has shown them that they were in need of legal reform, and that archaic laws like this should be removed. The issue of constitutional reform was a conversation among many of them that had started as a result of this case.
As our conversation progressed Minister Karti made it clear that he had openly expressed his opinion to the international community. He gave me permission tell my friends that he was confident that Meriam would not be sentenced and executed, but that her case had to go through the court system because the executive branch of the Sudanese government does not have authority over the judicial branch. Meriam’s lawyer had made an appeal and he could contest each ruling all the way to the Sudanese Supreme Court.
Although Ali was an influential leader in the Sudan he could not just step in and force the courts to do what he wishes. He told me that he was confident that the ruling would be overturned in the judicial process. His desire was to see Meriam being able to go home to be with her husband while her case was working it’s way through the court system. He also was of the opinion that this lower court ruling that demanded Meriam renounce her marriage to a Christian and convert to Islam would be thrown out of court. As I stated previously, the current constitution of the Sudan in principle guarantees religious freedom for all of its citizens, but unfortunately this is not always enforced as it should be. The constitution as it stands now would make the lower court ruling unconstitutional because it would be a violation of Meriam’s religious freedom as a citizen of Sudan.
As I got to know Minister Karti I did not sense any deception or guile in his words to me. I told him that I often take a 45 minute prayer walk on the beach near my home, and that I had been praying earnestly for him and his country. I told him that I believed he wants to be a compassionate and just leader. I reminded him that God wants all of the citizens of the Sudan, both Muslims and Christians, to prosper and feel safe in their own country. I said, “My dear brother Ali, God wants you to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly before Him. He wants you to fight for the widows, the orphans and the oppressed. He wants you to stand for those who are weak and have no power and cannot stand up for themselves. He wants you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself and treat other people (both Muslims and Christians) the way you want to be treated. Brother Ali, I believe you have come into a place of influence for such a time as this. I promise you this day that every time I walk the beach to pray I will call your name out to God. I will pray that you will be just and merciful as He is and that you will love all your people well. The Qur’an says that if you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world.”
Minister Karti seemed deeply touched by what I said. He paused for a moment to reflect and then responded, “Brother Jeff, when you pray on the beach my heart will be connected to yours and we will be together bound by eternal friendship. Please continue to pray for me that I will be the man God wants me to be.”
After two trips to the Sudan and five weeks after my first meeting with Minister Karti I received the following brief email from the Foreign Minister.
Thank you my brother… A few hours ago an Italian plane took off from Khartoum. On board was the deputy Italian foreign minister accompanied by the lady (Meriam Ibrahim), her husband and their two children. You have been with us all the time we were dealing with this issue. I hope to see you soon to pray together for a better future of the relationship between our two nations.
I was deeply touched and honored that the Foreign Minister went out of his way to let me know that he and his people had kept their word. He did not have to take the time to do this. I hope to pray with him again in the future.
The Only Way To Get Rid of An Enemy Permanently
It has been over a year since Meriam was released. She is living in the U.S. with her family and has created a new life.
It was a joy to be part of this amazing journey and to see first hand what God can do when we reach out in friendship to those we often perceive to be our enemies.
I have been told by some of my Sudanese friends that the Sudanese government does not care about sanctions and how much pressure the world puts on them. You will find this type of thinking all over Africa. They are used to Western disapproval and international pressure. This is a huge mistake that we as Americans make when we engage the Muslim world. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the only way to get rid of an enemy permanently is to make him your friend. I am convinced that most of our problems in the world could be solved over a few meals if we would go to the people we often think of as our enemies, listen to them, talk about Jesus, and put some of their interests above our own. Abdel and I attempted to do this in the case of Meriam and it worked. As I sat with these men I did not find enemies, but new friends who often saw the world through a different lens. I found we had way more in common than not. I love the people of the Sudan and a piece of my heart will always be there. God has a destiny for that country.
My goal in peacemaking is never ideological or theological conformity. Unfortunately, this seems to be the default position of our government and often our churches. My goal in peacemaking is to get people to like me and want to have a relationship with me. What I have found over the years is that I can be on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum with some one but if we start eating together and becoming friends then we start finding ways to work together to make a lasting change in the world. This really works. I have experienced this firsthand. If we wait for the people we often think of as our enemies to come into line and agreement with us theologically, politically, or ideologically, then polarization will remain. In the end we are all just people. Starting with friendship, loving our neighbor and treating other people (including nations) the way we want to be treated might just be the best starting place. I think Jesus said something very similar 🙂
As I said the turning point in all of this was when these Sudanese leaders realized that Meriam’s case was unconstitutional. The Sudan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom but unfortunately it is not always enforced by everyone in leadership on the grass roots level. Meriam’s execution would have been a violation of their own Islamic constitution. All of this took place over meals with prayer, laughter and building friendship. I credit my dear Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig with this because he is an expert in sharia law and he has known these men most of his life. I just had the honor of serving with him and being there to represent a Christian presence and perspective. I have not mentioned all of the names of the leaders I met with in the Sudan. These humble men did not want any recognition or publicity for what they did.
I am convinced that had it not been for the years of peacemaking that my good friends former Congressman Mark Siljander and Imam Abdel Azim had done in the Sudan none of this would have happened. I simply stood on the shoulders of giants.
Meeting With Meriam Ibrahim
Abdel and I were permitted to meet Meriam in person at the prison. We were told by Sudanese officials that we were the first Americans to meet with her. She was a shy person and somewhat withdrawn. Abdel was able to make her laugh. Her children were beautiful. I told her that there were thousands of people praying for her in the U.S. and around the world. I asked her if she had a message for them. All she said was “Pray that I will be released.”