On Refugees, and Refusing to Be Scared


The news that governors are suddenly deciding that they don’t want to welcome Syrian refugees has really driven home to me just how cowardly much of this country is. We talk tough, mind you, but when we’re asked to really open ourselves up to something, we refuse. I’m not talking about the country’s willingness to use our military to intervene in other countries. We as a nation are plenty happy to do that—yes, there are many of us who oppose military intervention in some if not all circumstances, but the policies of the nation are what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is how we invent threats that come from just over the border, or from other parts of the world, terrifying, strange places that are filled with ethnic slurs in bodily form who are bringing terrorism or leprosy or crystal meth or (as I saw in one post on social media today) “that hurka-durka talk.”

Because of the murders that took place in Paris on Friday, at least ten states have rescinded their offers of asylum for a tiny number of Syrian refugees. The governors of these states are the kind of men who talk tough all the time—they’re tough on crime and support the death penalty; they support the police and think the current administration hates the military and is destroying this country—but they’re so terrified of a handful of refugees that they’re saying, “Nope, not in my state.” (Although they really can’t do anything to stop it.) Let’s note that these are states—for instance, Louisiana and Alabama—with lots of gun-owners who talk all kinds of shit about how they have to own arsenals just in case the federal government overreaches and they have to fight another revolution. Right.

And this is far from the first time this sort of thing has happened. When President Obama took office in 2009, one of his first actions was to sign an executive order closing Guantanamo Bay, and moving the prisoners there into the US, into prisons here to await trial. Congress—both parties—lost its collective shit over that, and inserted a law into a defense spending authorization making it illegal to bring Guantanamo detainees into the US for trial. Apparently our politicians have very little faith in our prisons and the people who work in them to do their jobs, which is kind of weird given that the US imprisons more people than any other nation on earth. We’re good at that. But not good enough, it seems.

Whenever the subject of immigration comes up, we hear the same story. Strange people coming across the border bringing their whatever that’s going to destroy us from within, all while we talk about how we’re the greatest country on the planet. Give me a break. We shit our pants in fear every time something minor happens. We lose our minds when the big stuff happens.

Back when I was an undergrad, some guys in my fraternity used to like to say (mostly while drunk), “If you’re scared, say you’re scared.” It was meant as a challenge, as a way of getting someone to do something they didn’t really want to do. But you know, it’s probably good advice. If the attacks in Paris scared us, we should say so, and figure out why. If the idea of taking in people who are fleeing violence in their own countries scares us, let’s admit it and figure out just what there is to be scared of. (Spoiler alert: It’s probably nothing.)

The US as a nation really doesn’t have much to be scared of, especially compared to the rest of the world. We have oceans on both sides of us, and good relationships with the governments on our other two borders. Our geography and size makes us difficult to invade, and even though that’s the case, we still spend more on our military than the next twenty-six nations combined. Our economy is one of the strongest in the world, and we enjoy an incredibly high standard of living, on the average. Why are we so frightened all the damn time? ISIS could throw every single asset it has at the US and it wouldn’t dent us, but we’re turning away refugees because we’re afraid of… something.

I’m tired of being told I should be scared, so instead, I’ll make the following declaration. I’d be happy to have Syrian refugees in my neighborhood. I don’t know how Governor Terry Branstad feels about it, but I’m willing. Bring them here for as long as they need refuge, and if they want to make a home here, even better. I’m not scared. I refuse to be scared.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →