Why the Church Should Say Yes to Refugees

culture and society

This title is a little strange and my goal isn’t to alienate readers who don’t identify or align with a particular faith. Since Friday’s attacks in Paris, where I, like many of you, sat in front of the news in horror over what humans are capable of doing to other humans, the overwhelming response in the United States has been to bar passage for any Syrian refugees.

This response also comes from people who identify themselves as the church body — evangelical leaders, clergy, people in our day-to-day. Twenty-six states are refusing to take in any refugees, vetted or no. GOP candidates vary from wanting to limit acceptance of refugees to those who identify as Christians to wanting to deny passage for any of them — “even orphans under the age of five.”

Below I’ve outlined a few of the major arguments I’ve seen against accepting refugees and some thoughts on each one. At the bottom of this post, I’ve cited sources, although how much stock you put in those sources is up to you.


“If we let refugees come in, we’re letting ISIS into our country.”

The fear of ISIS is a valid one. The Islamic State is responsible for some of the most heinous acts on our planet.Paris was heart-wrenching; the NYC threats are scary. We’ve heard the stories about how there are people who are hard to vet being rushed into the country.

But the process for coming in as a refugee is the actually most extensive security screening the United States does for visitors. Passing through our current process takes eighteen months, if not longer.

From an interview with Eleanor Acer, Senior Director of Refugee Protection at Human Rights First: “First they’re identified abroad, they are registered, information is taken by the UN Refugee Agency… they’re interviewed one-on-one by a trained Department of Homeland Security Officer … then a barrage of checks are conducted by US Intelligence Agencies, by the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security. They are so incredibly thoroughly vetted that they really present absolutely no risk to this country.”

The Boston bombers — two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — were not Syrian refugees. They were from Chechnya, and here on tourist visas.

The 19 terrorists who carried out attacks on September 11th entered the United States legally, mostly on tourist or business visas. If the Islamic State wanted to infiltrate the US, they have a better chance of doing so by 1) radicalizing citizens via the internet or 2) getting their members who are European nationals — like the ones who attacked Paris on Friday — to fly here with a tourist visa, student visa, or business visitor visa than to do it by way of refugee status.

It’s not that letting the refugees can’t let ISIS in, it’s that ISIS will find other ways, so that’s not a compelling reason to shut the refugees out.


“But what about veterans? We should be taking care of our own.”

This argument that we should be focusing on helping veterans instead of refugees is a tough one, because, yes, of course we should be doing more for homeless veterans — but it’s not a solid argument against helping Syrians. “Let’s not do this one good thing because we can’t do the perfect thing.”

It creates a false dilemma, inaccurately suggesting that we must choose one or the other. We are dealing with 50,000 homeless veterans and 10,000 refugees, spread across a country of 319 million. This amounts to less than two hundredths of one percent of the population. It is certainly possible to give our attention to both, to help veterans and refugees without one group taking away from the other. 

Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted a biting comment about having to renew a passport to visit members of his own species across artificially conceived borders. Is the value of the life of a Syrian less than my own?  Are we suggesting that native-born Americans hold more value than any other human?

There’s a disconnect. It’s easy for my brain to gloss over big ideas. Poverty. The war over there. All the refugees.

And I think the biggest way to combat ignorance and apathy is to hear their stories, see their faces, and realize that human lives are not something we can so easily politicize. Knowing this disconnect, I think, inspired Save the Children to put together a heartwrenching second-a-day video illustrating life for a Syrian child.

I also appreciate photojournalist Magnus Wenmann’s photo series on where Syrian children sleep, and Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York series on refugees. Both are worth a look and a read, if only to make these stories seem real and not just some vague news blip happening in an unfamiliar country.


“Who is going to pay for all of this?”

The Good Samaritan didn’t just help; he paid out of his own pocket for a stranger. That said, the concern over cost is overblown.

From a purely economic standpoint (I say “purely economic” because the next couple of paragraphs feel a little crass without that qualifier), while there’s certainly a cost for bringing in refugees to the government at the outset, perhaps it’s less of a cost than an investment. At the very least, the cost is rather small and temporary in the grand scheme of things.

Most refugees aren’t looking for handouts for the rest of their lives. On the contrary, many of them are hard-working middle class citizens who have enjoyed success in their own countries, and will likely enjoy success in this one. Immigration has historically benefitted communities. Immigrants pay more into the system than they extract from it. More middle class workers and entrepreneurs means more taxes paid; taxes that can go towards things like (bringing it back full circle here) veteran benefits.

Look at it on a smaller scale: If a few of us were sitting on a lump-sum of cash, we could pool our resources, buy a house that’s for sale in this finally dipping market, provide it rent-free to a refugee family plus a cash allowance to cover food and clothing for one year, charge rent after and within five years our investment starts becoming profitable. In the end, everyone wins. A family is restored and thriving, they’re stimulating the local economy, we’re turning a profit, and I get to eat Musakhan rolls once a week.

Words from a friend and fellow blogger, Niri, who, as a 12-year-old, had to flee South Africa due to political riots, on giving back: I’ve volunteered with abused women, abused children, at-risk teens, seniors and more. Some of us who receive know we don’t have to have much to give. There’s always enough to give! Always!


“All of the refugees seem to be military-aged men.”

A lot of pictures on the internet and some news sources have definitely painted this picture. While I think that asylum should be offered regardless of age or gender, this assumption is incorrect. Twelve million Syrians have fled their homes because of conflict. Half of those are children. (Data linked below.)


While my goal is to share facts and thoughts that could rebut arguments and mitigate fear, the fact remains — people are scared, and understandably so, because there are still risks. The fear of ISIS is certainly a valid one.

But maybe we help anyway. Words from a friend:

“There’s a risk when doing good, but it’s a risk that every respectable character in the Bible took. Just because it’s not easy or not safe doesn’t mean it’s not right.”

I see the argument that the Bible asks us to use wisdom, and we should. But barring an oppressed people from entering a nation in which we’re so fortunate to live marches right past wisdom and directly into losing our humanity.

In spite of the attacks on their city a mere six days ago, while Republican candidates are calling for the barring of refugees, Paris is refusing to give into fear, and has agreed to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees. French President Francois Hollande said that it is France’s humanitarian duty to honor its commitment to refugees.

We’re in a moment in history — the largest refugee crisis since World War II — where we are given the chance to exercise all of the things we speak about; all of the things we believe. We have a chance to make love one another and care for the orphans and the widows and invite strangers into your homes more than just religious rhetoric, and we are failing. We are big-time failing.

If we ascribe to a faith that calls us to radical love and radical compassion and we refuse to do both, what is our faith for? Singing sentiments like “break our hearts for what breaks yours” on Sunday mornings, but not really meaning it? Faith tattoos on our wrists, when we’re not exercising it? Praying, but not being willing to be the answer to prayers? Religion in theory, but not in practice?

If we can’t do this, let’s pack it all up and call ourselves something else. We can’t call ourselves the Church if we’re not going to be one.

Instead, maybe we clutch each others’ hands and proceed anyway. Acknowledge the fear and open our homes anyway. Not have much to give, but give anyway. Maybe we find the courage to welcome anyway; the grace to love anyway.

resources to share; asterisk denotes source used in this post

+ this powerful second-a-day video from Save the Children
+ this smart video featuring facts about Syrian refugees in the US*
+ this really informative “explain it to me like I’m five” video*
+ some data on refugees from the UN Refugee Agency*
+ this great fact sheet from World Vision*
+ a map of states refusing to accept Syrian refugees*
+ an interview on the effects of an influx of refugees on the European economy
+ on the vetting process
+ the #WeWelcomeRefugees website
+ The Big Myth About Refugees*
+ Europe Should See Refugees as a Boon, Not a Burden*
+ ISIS and the Lonely Young American*
+ France Says It Will Take in 30,000 Refugees*

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  • Reply amber November 19, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Been following you for a few years now. Your posts most always provoking something inside to challenge my knee-jerk reflexes. Thank you for this. Been toiling inside over it all. By the way, Semiproper is your best name yet, don’t change it anymore :)

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      I won’t. Not this year, anyway. ???? Thank you, Amber! ????

  • Reply Anna November 19, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you for writing this. When you talked about World Vision and the issue of homosexuality you really hit that nail on the head and you just did it again. Seriously, thank you.

    • Reply Roo November 19, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      Oh, Anna, thanks so much for saying that. Really appreciate it.

  • Reply Lindsay Durrenberger November 19, 2015 at 5:26 pm


  • Reply Edna November 19, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    So so so good, Roo. Thank you for being thoughtful and kind in your delivery. This is good stuff.

  • Reply Tasha November 19, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Great post! All the fear and hate on Facebook has made me so sad lately. Looking forward to checking out your links. Thank you.

  • Reply Kyla November 19, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    You have articulated so beautifully the thoughts and feelings I have been struggling to put into words. I am in shock that this is even something we need to talk about, that compassion has become less important than fear. Thank you so, so much for this.

  • Reply Katie @ Domestiphobia November 20, 2015 at 7:25 am

    This is so well-said I can’t even stand it. I’m not religious, but this title could easily be, “Why Americans Should Say Yes to Refugees.” The gist of it is, sometimes bad things happen to good people. But fear (and believe me, not one of us is immune) will never make me not want to be good people.

  • Reply Amy November 20, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Thank you for writing this. And for providing the link to have it explained to me like I’m five.

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      I found that video to be so helpful, Amy! Really laid it out nicely, I think.

  • Reply Julie November 20, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Roo, this is amazing and eloquent and spot on. I hope this post goes viral because everyone needs to hear this. My favorite part is “We have a chance to make love one another and care for the orphans and the widows and invite strangers into your homes more than just religious rhetoric, and we are failing.” I hope the good in humanity prevails, and with people like you speaking, I have hope.

  • Reply Heather Laura Clarke November 20, 2015 at 11:44 am

    OK that last photo makes me LITERALLY want to adopt that little girl, this very minute. Thank you, Roo, for your words. They are perfection.

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      The entire series is incredible. (And thank you, Heather!)

  • Reply Jessica November 20, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I’m still conflicted on this issue – as a humanitarian I definitely want to help people, but I also have fear. I recently heard from a source that actually does the background checks for asylum and they said they are having an extremely hard time vetting Syrian refugees to the level they usually would as there is little to no paper trail or chunks of time are missing from the files, but that these people still eventually get granted asylum. I suppose that’s where my concern lies as not all governments keeps tabs on its citizens as thoroughly as the US does. So what do you do if there is no record on someone for 10 years of their adult lives? Of course, children should be a no-brainer. But I also believe if ISIS wants in our country they’re going to get in, refugees or not.

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      Your concern about the government not tabs as thoroughly as the US does is a real one. The research I’ve done still mostly alleviates that fear for me (like how refugees don’t get to necessarily pick where they’re going, except for maybe if they have family in the country or that they do various interviews), but I think the last line does it for me. Lots of ways to get in, so denying refugees entrance doesn’t seem to make the most logical sense. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jessica!

  • Reply Delia November 20, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Thank you Roo! Very well said.

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      Thank you for reading, Delia!

  • Reply Gina November 20, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    “…I think the biggest way to combat ignorance and apathy is to hear their stories, see their faces, and realize that human lives are not something we can so easily politicize.”

    YES. So true. Really appreciate your humble plea for the church to BE the church. Thank you.

    For more stories and faces, check out Al Jazeera’s Life on Hold feature, which has some heart-wrenching narratives about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. lifeonhold.aljazeera.com

    • Reply Roo November 20, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      Thank you for your kind words and also for passing that link along, Gina!

  • Reply Jamie November 24, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Roo, you’re just the best. I know I can always come to your blog for a well thought out article about what’s going on. If you and John Oliver could run the world together, that’d be great. ;) Thanks again! xo

    • Reply Roo March 7, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      I’m coming back a hundred years later to say that this is my favorite comment in the world. I might add it to my LinkedIn profile. Thanks, Jamie!

      • Reply Jamie March 7, 2016 at 12:48 pm

        Hey, better late than never, right? ;)

  • Reply Dorothy December 6, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    I have mixed feelings but not for the same reasons as many others. I wonder why we want to help when we won’t help our own homeless. I understand why the politicians want to. They have to look good. Especially for election time.
    Many churches and religious organizations are the same way. They won’t help our needy unless they meet certain qualifications.
    Also some of the refugees may not want to come or be here. They want our help yes. But they may want to be home. Has anybody really asked them what kind of help they want or need?

  • Reply Sarah December 8, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    Almost a month later, but I couldn’t agree more with what you say here, Roo.

  • Reply December Currently - Lauren-Likes Blog January 2, 2016 at 4:31 am

    […] Agreeing wholeheartedly with this article […]

  • Reply Conflict Resolution Skills Holding at a Solid B+ - Semiproper March 23, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    […] I usually don’t. Confrontation turns my blood cold, so when I feel compelled to write about refugees or corruption in the Church or misogyny or racism, I hit publish and lie down on the floor and wait […]

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