How to Talk About Refugees: General Principles
Back in September I wrote an article about how to talk about refugees on social media. In it I outlined some important things for us to keep in mind when we talk about refugees on the internet, especially since there is so much misinformation being circulated about the issue. It ended up being one of my most popular posts to date, so I thought I would write an entire series on how to talk about refugees. Over the next several months I’ll cover tips for how to talk about refugees with different kinds of people in your life - political conservatives, liberals, Christians, and even your kids. If you have a specific group in mind that you’d like me to address, let me know! For now, though, let’s consider some general principles that apply no matter who you’re talking to.
Know the Facts
First things first, if you’re going to be talking to people about refugees, you should probably have the basic facts under your belt. If you want to learn more and need somewhere to start, I would recommend checking out these FAQs about refugees in America. To go a little deeper, read this book. It’s an amazing resource and a super easy read.
If you don’t have the basic facts down pat, you might need to seriously ask yourself if you should be talking to people about refugees at all. There is so much misinformation out there about refugees and we need to do our part to avoid adding to it. Of course, the topic of refugees is bound to come up in casual conversations with friends or family. So, what should you do if you don’t feel comfortable enough with the facts to offer your two cents? Well, whip out your handy dandy smart phone and send them here to Faith & Forced Migration as a resource. You can also recommend the book I mentioned above or the website of another reputable organization like World Relief.
Know Your Audience
If you have the facts down, you’re passionate about refugees, and you want to play a part in combatting misinformation about them, then the first step for you is to know your audience. While you may have a very specific set of reasons for why you support refugees or refugee resettlement, chances are that not all of them will resonate with every person you talk to. Think about what is important to others and how supporting refugees could fit in with the values they already have. This step is even more vital for those of you who may be speaking to a larger group of people about refugees. Do your research and ask the questions necessary to find out about the group you’ll be addressing.
Once you have determined the general characteristics of your audience (i.e. younger, older, conservative, liberal, religious, etc.), pick the points that will resonate with their existing values and stick to them. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to do, but it is so important! As a Christian, the biblical command to welcome the stranger is the primary reason why I support refugees. However, if my audience consists of nominal Christians who only go to church on Easter and Christmas, the biblical arguments for welcoming refugees may not resonate with them very much. Choosing to focus on other arguments doesn’t mean you’re abandoning your own beliefs about why you should support refugees, it just means that you recognize that this conversation isn’t about you, but about informing and persuading the person (or people) you’re talking to.
Don’t Try to Cover Everything
You may be thinking, Well, I’ll focus on the points that will resonate with my audience, but I should also cover the other points to make sure my presentation is well-rounded. I would strongly advise against this approach, especially for those who will be speaking to a group. Speakers are typically given only a brief amount of time for their presentation, and trying to cram in every possible argument for why we should support refugees would simply clutter up your time. Even if you did have unlimited time to include everything, doing so could mean that unnecessary information would keep your audience from focusing on the arguments that align with their existing values.
Don’t Avoid the Hard Questions
So far I have stressed the importance of talking about refugees in a way that will resonate with your audience and trying to avoid doing anything that will rub them the wrong way or distract them. However, following these principles doesn’t mean you should avoid addressing the hard questions that your audience may have.
For example, if you are speaking to a conservative audience about refugee resettlement, many of them may have questions like How well can people from war zones really be vetted? or What about the refugees or children of refugees who have committed terrorist attacks? These are questions that seem to us to challenge the merits of supporting refugees, and we can easily get defensive when we hear them or we try to avoid addressing them altogether. But for most who ask these questions they are genuine concerns. If you avoid addressing these hard questions you will not be serving your audience well. It takes humility to say “I don’t know” to some of these questions, and patience to correct the misconceptions behind others, but humility and patience will work much better than defensiveness and avoidance in the long run.
Always Uphold the Dignity of Refugees
This last point is perhaps the most important in an article on how to talk about refugees. Presentations about refugees (and sometimes one-on-one conversations) often involve stories about refugees and pictures or videos featuring refugees. While I am hoping to write an entire post on this as part of this series, let me just touch on a few things here.
Before telling a story, using a picture, or playing a video, always, always, always ask yourself these two questions.
1) Does this uphold or undermine the inherent dignity of refugees as people made in the image of God?
2) Does this sensitively and respectfully portray the vulnerability that often comes with being a refugee?
While these are fairly general questions to ask, I think they provide a good starting point to reflect on the appropriateness of the story or media that you want to share. Once you have asked these questions you should also consider some specific aspects of your story or media piece.
Whenever possible include refugees’ names in your stories to avoid dehumanization. If you cannot use a person’s real name, give them a believable pseudonym. Do your best to avoid stories or media that unnecessarily victimize refugees and portray them as utterly helpless to respond to their situation. This portrayal is almost never accurate. In order to legally obtain refugee status a person must respond to their situation by choosing to flee their country. By definition, then, a refugee cannot be an utterly helpless victim. Again, these are just a few examples and guidelines for now, and I hope to cover this point in more detail in the future.
Whether you are a concerned person passionate about social justice issues or someone who has dedicated their entire career to advocating for and working with refugees, I hope that you will find these general principles helpful. Talking about refugees can be intimidating, especially when your audience includes those who may be opposed to supporting refugees. I hope that this series on how to talk about refugees will make the task a little less daunting and give you the courage and confidence you need to speak up on this issue.
If there is a particular group or audience you would like me to address when it comes to talking about refugees, let me know by commenting below or contacting me directly here.