A letter to my Governor: Our problem is not Syrian refugees – it’s us.

I wrote this letter as a response to the Governor of my home state of Maryland–Larry Hogan–who requested that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland. — Elsa Lakew

Dear Governor Larry Hogan,

You don’t know me. But I know a little about you. First and foremost, you’re the governor of my home state of Maryland, a place that I have been honored to call home for the past 15 of my 21 year life. Though I call Maryland my home, I was not born here, I was born in Ethiopia. My mother brought me here seeking what most Americans historically have come to America in search of–freedom, opportunity and archetypal goal of achieving the American dream.

For most of my youth I have grappled with the question, what is the American dream? Most of the time when I hear people try to define what it means to achieve the American dream, they talk about the possibility of making something out of nothing. And honestly Governor I cannot think of anyone more deserving of such an opportunity than those Syrian refugees who have managed to escape their war torn country–a country that doesn’t feel like home for most anymore. Where homes once standing have been decimated into rubble. And where families expect airstrikes as naturally as we expect rain. A country that–at the moment–offers nothing for those families that have fled it.

I can’t help but empathize with some of those families, but only to a certain degree. My mother and I did not come to this country because we were fleeing from the same circumstances as the Syrian people. But one string that ties us together is this– both my mother and I were refugees. And above all– I understand what it feels like to lose your home, for home not to feel like home because of violence, the struggle that you go through to come to a foreign land– and make it feel like home.

My mother and I have managed to do that here in Maryland, specifically in Montgomery County. A county that is possibly one of the most–if not the most–diverse counties in the state of Maryland. My introduction to this diversity came by simply walking through the halls of my alma mater of Montgomery Blair High School. Similarly, anyone walking through Downtown Silver Spring can bear witness to the rainbow of faces–and it’s beautiful.

Personally, I moved to Montgomery County to take advantage of its rigorous educational opportunities. And it was here that I got accepted to the Communication and Arts program and graduated High School with honors. I continue my matriculation at Howard University, where I am currently a Junior studying Economics and Political Science.

I am interested in public policy and advocacy work–and have been long before I even became an American citizen. In fact before I became a citizen I was elected to become a Student Representative for the Montgomery County Commission on Children and Youth–to which I was very proud to serve my full term–I was president of my school’s Young Democrats Club, A Maryland Delegate to the National Young Democrats Convention, and I think you get my point.

More than anything this country has given me–a voice. A voice that I can use to speak up about issues that I care about or to even be critical about a decision someone in power–such as yourself–has made. An opportunity that I would have been afforded in my native country. Where journalists and those who have stood in opposition of the government have often times been jailed–for being so outspoken. But that does not even compare to what the Syrian people face when they voice their opposition.

I was asked last a few months back, why I do what I do? And it’s a simple answer really, I do what I do because of my mother–to try and pay her back for fighting to give me a life here, a place that continues to offer an endless amount of opportunities–the very opportunities that she never had. Those same opportunities that Syrian refugees currently do not have.

I told you earlier that I often hear people define the American dream to be the opportunity to make something out of nothing. But for me, it’s much simpler than that–the American dream I believe was founded upon the principle of chance. the American dream is simply giving people a shot at achieving something if they work hard at it. A chance given to those willing to make sacrifices to pave a way for a better life for themselves and their families. A chance to reinvent yourself–to turn yourself from a victim to a victor.

I speak with full knowledge that I can never truly understand the hardships that they have experienced–the oppression that led them to leave their land and the hardships that they continue to face. But I believe it is my duty to speak up and use my voice to amplify those that continue to be silenced. I am asking you as an Ethiopian American to rethink your decision, to give those families a chance. They are fleeing from those same terrorists that you fear.

In your statement you stated that your fear of allowing refugees to come to Maryland is rooted in the fear you have, that we may be attacked. Well that is a very big if. But I can understand the vulnerability that one might feel after such an attack. So you would probably expect more so than anyone–the French President to make the same request as yourself to restrict the number of Syrian refugees to settle in France, right? Wrong.

French President Francois Hollande says France will take 30,000 Syrian refugees. You cited the recent attack that happened in Paris, France as the source of your anxiety. I believe this action truly speaks volumes of the compassion and strength of President Hollande, maybe more Governors should follow his leadership. Following the Paris attacks President Hollande said, “Our duty to humanity in regards to refugees goes hand in hand with the duty to protect the French people. Through terror Daesh [ISIS] want to instill with its butchery the poison of suspicion, of stigmatization, of division. We must not give into the temptation to close ourselves off.”

And if the French President can find it in his heart to allow more refugees in, I don’t see why Maryland cannot do the same. Frankly, your fear is just not a legitimate enough reason to stifle us from accepting people who feared so much for their lives that they left their own country to escape from those very terrorists you too are afraid of. More than four million Syrian refugees have fled since 2011, and only a tiny fraction — 2,150 people — have been admitted into the U.S., and only following a lengthy vetting process that on average takes years. Furthermore, all the identified assailants of the Paris attack were not Syrian, instead citizens of European Union countries.

We don’t have to abandon our principles that have historically given people a chance at the American dream. We can embrace both our principles and our safety. Allow our doors to be open but of course let them go through the traditional screening process.

If the screening process that refugees went through was the same screening process that people in this country had to go through to purchase a gun maybe that would help lower the gun violence that is contributing to acts of terror committed right here in America. Because if we are being honest with this intent in wanting to combat acts of terrorism, we cannot keep ignoring the ugly truth that there are already acts of terror occurring right here.

Instead of joining a coalition currently composed of mainly Republican Governors across the U.S. to oppose Syrian refugees–how about building a coalition of Governors that advocate for responsible gun laws? Because our federal gun laws are frankly weak–but a coalition among states can play a critical role in trying to adopt laws to protect communities from gun violence. Governor Hogan, wouldn’t that be more of an effective way to use your power than to not allow children and families fleeing from war into this country?

Historically, looking back at World War II, Jewish people sought refuge in the United States to flee from a ruthless dictator. And at the time we acted similarly to how we are acting now–we did not open our doors. Let us not repeat this historical flaw, but instead reshape it–that now we have the opportunity to act.

There has been a lot of fear mongering going around–by misguided political talking heads who aim to paint with a broad stroke that the only terrorists that we should fear are those who have a brown complexion, who hear hijabs and follow teachings of Islam. But this type of rhetoric is neither based in fact nor true to the principal teachings of Islam.

If you are worried about acts of terrorism, recent domestic attacks have shown us that it’s not people who look like Syrians we should fear. Instead, Governor, it’s individuals who look more like you.

By that I mean have the same phenotypical characteristics as you–white males. And I say this with a grain of salt and no intent to insult you personally–I can’t emphasize this enough. I mean of course the actions committed by a few crazy White men who hold very radical views–most certainly do not reflect that of your own nor all white men. In fact you wouldn’t be the proud Governor of such a diverse state if that were the case. It is obvious that not all American White males are terrorists. But why is it not as obvious to grasp that not all Syrians or Muslims are terrorists? I make this comparison with the intent of simply making that point.

Wade Michael Page an American in 2012, opened fire in a Sikh temple and killed six people. Adam Lanza in 2012 took the lives of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In February of 2015, Craig Stephen Hicks took the lives of three Muslim Americans. And most recently in June of 2015, in Charleston Dylann Roof opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and killed nine people.

And even after he was arrested for ruthlessly taking the lives of those nine people, police drove him to a Burger King to get him a meal before going to question him. If those Americans had the heart to treat a heartless terrorist like a human being, I don’t understand why we want to continue to treat innocent and vulnerable human beings as terrorists.


Elsa Lakew

[reblogged from naturallyelsa blog]

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