Refugees and Culture: An Amazing Opportunity

Last week we talked about refugees and concerns of national security. Those concerns are closely linked to concerns about refugees and culture, especially when it comes to refugees from majority Muslim countries. So today, instead of going over statistics, I want to focus on cultural differences that many Americans might have with refugees resettling in the US and consider how we might address them with respect and sensitivity.

Concerns About Refugees and Culture

Our world is smaller than ever before. We can easily learn about and connect with people from vastly different cultures through the internet. We can meet individuals from those cultures in person in our own city or even in our own neighborhood. Yet even in this context of increasing globalization, there remains fear and hesitation when it comes to those who are different from us. The combination of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslim extremists and overwhelming numbers of Muslim refugees seeking safety (often from those extremists) has brought these fears of refugees and culture to the surface. Many Americans are concerned that the values and beliefs of Muslim refugees are different enough from our own that they will not be able to integrate into our society, but might actually change our culture in negative ways.

[bctt tweet="Find out why we shouldn't be afraid of #refugees and their cultural differences. " username="refugee_review"]

I acknowledge the fear and concern you feel. I have felt it too. Change can be frightening, and I am largely comfortable in my culture as it is. I would also like to eliminate any possibility that our country might be affected by radical Islamists in any way. Muslim refugees tend to be quite religious people, and as an outsider it can be difficult to discern the line between innocent piety and dangerous radicalization when our own American culture is so thoroughly secular. For us there is a clear distinction between private faith and public discourse, and few dare to cross that line. But for most Muslims, their cultural reality is very different and religion is an integral part of all aspects of life. Instead of seeing this, and other cultural differences, as a threat, I believe there are ways we can learn from our refugee neighbors. We may just find that our own culture is enriched in the process.

We're Not Perfect

The first and most important step to accepting the different cultural backgrounds of refugees, and learning from them, is to acknowledge the flaws and shortcomings of our own cultural heritage. While America is a great nation (contrary to the opinion of one GOP presidential nominee), she is far from perfect. Our history of colonialism and imperialism has resulted in a superiority complex that continues to cloud our views of other people. Our justice system is the exact opposite of just when deciding the fates of African Americans. We staunchly insist on the separation of church and state, private faith and public discourse, and then we appeal to our "Judeo-Christian heritage" as an argument for denying safety and protection to refugees and immigrants, when Scripture (which informs that heritage) commands us to "welcome the stranger."

[bctt tweet="We must acknowledge the #flaws of our own #culture before we can #learn from others. " username="refugee_review"]

Be A Learner

Acknowledging our imperfections doesn't mean bashing our country, abandoning our patriotism, or ceasing to support our leaders. It simply means laying aside our pride and being willing to adopt the attitude of a learner when it comes to refugees and culture. What can our individualistic culture learn from the largely collectivistic cultures of the rest of the world? If you made friends with a refugee family from the Middle East, they could teach you the art of hospitality, something we are losing in our own culture. You might learn how to sew or make other beautiful crafts, or you might learn words and phrases in another language. From a central African refugee you could learn the rich proverbs of their culture. By interacting with Muslim refugees you might see how beautiful it can be when deep and sincere faith is weaved into every day conversations. From all refugees you could learn about resilience and hope.

[bctt tweet="One of the greatest things you can #learn from #refugees is #resilience and #hope. " username="refugee_review"]

Be A Teacher

After you've taken some time to learn, to show appreciation and respect for a culture different from your own, look for opportunities to return the favor. Teach your refugee friends how to make your favorite American dish - burgers and fries or apple pie. Remember to be sensitive and respectful of any dietary restrictions they may have due to their culture or religion. If you are concerned about the ideology of fundamental Islamists, talk to your Muslim friend about it. Chances are they are concerned about many of the same things, and you'll be able to share with each other ideas for how those of different faiths and cultures can live together in peace. If your refugee friend has been in the US for at least five years, they are eligible to apply for citizenship. Help them study for their citizenship exam and talk about the reasons you love this country and the values it represents. We can't complain about refugees and immigrants not successfully integrating into our society if we are not willing to teach them about all our culture has to offer.

[bctt tweet="Don't #complain about #refugees not integrating if you're not willing to #help! " username="refugee_review"]

The thoughts and ideas I have shared here barely scratch the surface of all the ways that we can learn from those of different cultures and, in turn, share with them our own cultural heritage. However, I do hope that you will begin to think more carefully through your concerns about refugees and culture, and discover that the exact same things you fear, could be amazing opportunities in disguise.

If this article on refugees and culture has piqued your interest and you want to know how you can go about making friends with refugees in your area, check out our series on volunteering with refugees