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Over my two decades as a high school ESL teacher, my refugee students were my heroes. They'd left their countries in the midst of conflicts and came here to learn a new language and culture, while at the same time navigating the minefields of adolescence. Many were victims of our country's foreign policy. In the nineties, that included my students from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Vietnam. By the time I retired in 2013, Palestine and Iraq were added to that list.
I'll never forget one Salvadoran student, I had in the early 90's. This young man was quite the charmer, always sporting a big grin, yet it's clear to me now that part of this was show in order to hide what we would call today PTSD. Once, he confessed to me that at night when he heard police helicopters hover over his neighborhood, he always dove under his bed and shook like a leaf because that sound of chopper blades reminded him of los escuadrones de la muerte he and his family had fled in El Salvador. Death squads our country backed with weapons, money, and training.
In the 20-teens, my Iraqi students recounted to me tales of growing up in a war zone. Immediately after we stupidly invaded their country, they were forced to stay inside their homes because our troops, expecting throngs "with sweets and flowers," couldn't secure Baghdad. So for months these children at very important ages for their development couldn't go to school. And, of course, when they were finally able to go out, they would often come upon the brutal aftermath of firefights, IEDs, and suicide bombings, not something we'd want any child to experience.
Today with the Syrian Civil War dragging into its seventh year, and an unstable Middle East, which we are partially responsible for, the world has more refugees than at any time since World War II. In 2016 the UN Refugee Agency estimated that there were 22.5 million refugees in the world. So, in the Age of Trump, what has been our response to this crisis? In one word, obscene.
The Trump Administration had promised to take in 45,000 refugees during fiscal 2018, a paltry number considering our population of over 325 million, being the largest economy in the world, and, as compared to 2016, when we accepted nearly 85,000 refugees. Even so, at the halfway mark, we've only admitted a little more than 10,000. So in this very important respect, the Trump Administration has gone all in for globalization -- or, as Pope Francis called it "the globalization of indifference" to refugees.
Look no further than recent news for proof of the world's hard-heartedness. Netanyahu just changed his mind about resettling African migrants. Anti-immigrant parties are ascendant in many European countries, while Trump demagogues about "caravans" of "illegals."
Yet the fact is most refugees are not in Western countries, but in Lebanon, Uganda, Kenya, and Jordan, countries much smaller geographically and economically than we are, so much less able to handle influxes of refugees. If these relatively poorer countries can step up, why can't we?
We have a moral responsibility to do more, as we have in the past, yet today even mainstream Republicans seemingly equate refugees, who have already gone through a rigorous vetting process, with terrorists. That's not just a lie. It's the big lie on steroids.
But, worst of all, it's self-defeating. Under Trump, the world's opinion of the U.S. has plummeted. A Gallup survey earlier this year documented an almost 20-point drop in global confidence in American leadership.
But if we accept more refugees, we might be able to change the world's opinion. Our intransigence is especially galling to me because, from my experience, we are good at assimilating refugee students. After the shortest time imaginable, my students, no matter where they came from, would be acting like typical American teenagers. Typical American teens who later would be a credit to their adopted country.