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Refugees Welcome

May 12 2017
Sara Button

During his introduction for Refugees Welcome, Ethics Center Faculty Director Rob Reich gave the audience a few numbers to mull over:

  • By the end of 2016, the US had admitted 13,000 Syrian refugees.

  • The population of the United States is roughly 325 million.

  • By the end of 2016, Canada had admitted 33,000 Syrian refugees.

  • The population of Canada is roughly 35 million people.

But those are just numbers. It’s easy to forget that they represent real people: women, men, brothers, sisters, parents, children, all of whom have left their homes at great risk in search of better lives for themselves and their loved ones in Canada. There, sponsors, many with little or no connection to the Middle East, awaited them, eager to help families and individuals settle in. All of them have names and faces and stories to tell, and over the course of a year, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn made it their business to tell some of them. The result was a four-part series, “Refugees Welcome,” and on April 25th they joined a crowd at CEMEX Auditorium to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it was like reporting the stories.

Kantor and Einhorn kicked off with a video showing portraits of their subjects taken by New York Times photographer Damon Winter, followed by an explanation of the main questions they wanted to explore in each part of their series. Part One, “Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome,” detailed the first meeting some sponsors had with their adopted refugee families. It also provided some background for the Canadian sponsorship program, which allows everyday people to sign up to spend a year resettling refugees. Documenting that initial encounter, Kantor said, symbolized the bigger questions their pieces aimed to ask: “Can regular people intervene in one of the world’s worst situations?” “How far would you go to help a stranger?” “Can the different languages and cultures, the barriers be surpassed for these two groups to relate to one another?” “We didn’t want to write a feel-good, rah rah story about this wonderful thing the Canadians were doing,” Kantor would say later during the Q & A. “We wanted to get into the  meat of this really ambitious thing and whether or not it was going to work.” Part Two, “They Took In One Refugee Family. But Families Don’t Have Borders” explored the issues sponsors and refugees faced in balancing their new start with the knowledge that family members are still struggling back home. With access to internet and smartphones, communication is easier than ever; but what kind of barriers can that create for acclamation? What do you do when your life has improved drastically but faraway loved ones still need help? Such situations also forced the sponsors to see the far-reaching implications of the refugee crisis in starker relief. Many refugees endure the danger and hardship of flight for the sake of their children. So what happens when you put those kids in situations where they can thrive? And how do parents feel to see their daughter or son assimilating to a new culture? Einhorn and Kantor follow Bayan, an adolescent girl, to explore these questions in Part Three, “Wonder and Worry as a Syrian Child Transforms.” The final part of their series focused on “Month 13,” the end of sponsorship, when sponsors and refugees alike wondering how much of a role they’ll play in each other’s lives.

Einhorn and Kantor sat down with Reich for an in-depth conversation, targeting some of the ethical situations they uncovered while reporting, weighing in on issues like the shift in gender roles within marriages they saw, and who they thought were the most vulnerable subsets of the refugee population.

For example, both reporters were struck by the difference in attitude between neighboring countries. While Canadian kids were coming home from school saying things like, “Timmy’s family is getting a Syrian refugee family, why can’t I get a Syrian refugee family for Christmas?” Kantor said, on the other side of the border was rhetoric that Syrian refugees wanted to harm the country. “The refugee debate here wasn’t playing out on a factual basis,” Kantor said, whereas in Canada, it felt more grounded in reality.  After the US election, Einhorn said, “there was a lot of fear of the Trump effect in Canada among the sponsors. Would they see xenophobia start taking place there?”

Thought-provoking, too, was the impact of technology on resettling families. Smartphones became more than communication tools; they transformed into handheld prisons of survivor’s guilt. “People they had met three times in their life” would message them, Einhorn recalled. “‘Remember when I did that favor for you? Now it’s time to pay me back’” sorts of messages were frequent.

Arguably the biggest ethical quandary refugee resettlement raises is of paternalism, to which the reporters returned again and again. Anyone fleeing a war-torn country arriving in a foreign land needs help. Simple tasks like making a doctor’s appointment or even going grocery shopping can become complicated when language and cultural barriers intercede. Sponsors must decide the extent to which they’ll involve themselves in the family’s life, walking the fine line between teaching and doing, between acting as cultural resources for incoming families and imposing values. Even asking what kind of agency a family might have in choosing where to live arises, as Kantor and Einhorn saw. Arriving with children who need to attend school complicates these decisions even more, as sponsors liaise with teachers on behalf of parents who speak little English. “That intimacy of sponsorship is its power and its greatest challenge,” Kantor said.

The public portion of the Q & A engaged with a number of issues, from social assistance to earning trust from subjects whose previous exposure to reporters was in places where the press is an agent of the state. Most compelling was a question the reporters redirected to the audience. If you were to do this, they asked, would you spend your money helping one family resettle really well, or half it and bring two families? Third it and bring three, knowing with each successive family you were aiding, you were making it harder to assist refugees with the actual resettlement process? Not an easy dilemma to solve.

The question that ended the night probably spurred a number of audience members to attend the event in the first place. What can we do stateside? There’s no single thing, Einhorn and Kantor said. But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. In addition to making responsible financial contributions, they suggested getting involved with local refugee resettlement groups.

I left feeling motivated. If you’re feeling motivated, too, here are a few local resources to get you started:

International Rescue Committee: San Jose

Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley

Refugee Transitions

Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County


SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh