How refugees help their new communities

Story highlights

  • Lubell and Peric: On World Refugee Day, look past loaded political rhetoric on refugees
  • Acts of kindness and welcome "have the potential to drive national policy for the better," they say

David Lubell is executive director of Welcoming America, an organization he founded in 2009, which helps organizations and communities prepare for successful refugee resettlement. An accomplished social entrepreneur, he is a 2015 Young Global Leader as named by the World Economic Forum and a 2016 "40 Under 40" innovative nonprofit leader named by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Rachel Peric is deputy director of Welcoming America. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN)"Refugee" is a loaded word. It conjures up images of traumatized people living in crowded camps and inevitably leads to major rifts in national politics. The current debate centers on "Will refugees be allowed in our country?" But this short-term focus often obfuscates a more fundamental one -- "What happens to refugees once they arrive in communities and become, simply, our neighbors?"

While much has been written about strengthening borders and toughening immigration law, relatively little attention has been paid to the local acceptance of refugees and the ways in which they are successfully incorporated into their new communities.
    Once integrated, though, refugees help communities grow economically, creating new businesses and professional opportunities. They also enhance social and civic participation, taking more active roles in local politics and governance.
    Rachel Peric
    David Lubell
    Every day, communities around the United States -- and the world -- decide whether to accept and embrace refugees, or to reject and fear them. And on this World Refugee Day, more and more communities are choosing to respond in compassionate and pragmatic ways that reflect the best of American values -- inviting new neighbors to join meals, encouraging them to participate in planting community gardens and opening the door for them to serve in public office.
    And these acts of kindness have the potential to drive national policy for the better.
    Perhaps one of the greatest fears driving the debate around borders and quotas is that new immigrants and refugees are viewed as the "other." Some fear they will be reluctant to adapt and integrate into the culture of their adopted hometowns.
    Political rhetoric draws on these fears. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has suggested that refugees not only pose a threat, but that they are unwilling and uninterested in becoming part of the communities they join.
    The danger is that such rhetoric can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If refugee families move into neighborhoods where they are constantly told, "You don't belong," then they will internalize that sentiment and remain on the periphery of their new community.
    Look no further than schools, a microcosm of any given community, and see how quickly children absorb the messages around them. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted that more than one-third of American teachers surveyed had observed an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in their classrooms.
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    In stark contrast, a community that embraces newcomers provides the fertile soil necessary for people of all backgrounds to plant roots. And that's not just wishful thinking -- it's fact. The RISE study, a five-year longitudinal study of refugee integration in Colorado, recently showed that not only do refugees successfully integrate over time, but that their ability to establish connections outside their immediate community -- something called "social bridging" -- can speed up that trajectory.
    Furthermore, when communities choose to create relationships between new and old residents, and convey that belonging is not based on race or religion, they can move past us vs. them to create a new sense of "we." This may also mean recognizing that many long-time residents also feel they don't belong, and working to create an environment where everyone, new and old, feels welcomed. That work can begin by honoring the contributions of all residents -- from sharing their stories to encouraging exchanges, such as business tours, to creating policies that ensure all community members can participate in the political process.
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    Communities that focus on creating an inviting environment, and on reducing the barriers that refugees and other immigrants face in achieving full participation (such as making it easier for newcomers to learn English or being served equitably by workforce centers) can benefit in numerous ways.
    Take the case of Columbus, Ohio, where refugees not only become neighbors, but make significant economic contributions -- ones that, according to a recent study, total about $1.6 billion. Columbus also benefits from greater civic and social participation and a more vibrant and attractive community. Zoom out to a national -- and even global -- map, and there are hundreds of cities and smaller towns that are choosing inclusion over exclusion, wading through the discomfort of difference and the unfamiliar to emerge on the other side more cohesive and more prosperous.
    Perhaps it's time to shine a spotlight away from the vitriol and toward the places that are bright lights illuminating the path forward. Though these places have struggled mightily, they have recognized that the cost of fear is far greater than the cost of building community -- an investment that reaps a reward that is both economic and moral.