Americans have a lot of sympathy for the refugee experience. Just the word “refugee” conjures images in our head of crowded camps and sad eyed children. But are those images accurate? And more importantly, are they helpful?
The truth is, the refugee experience can be harrowing. Just the nature of refugee status means that you are leaving a country because you are in danger. Resettling families have a great opportunity to start a new life, but we all know that starting a new life is very difficult, particularly if you are still dealing with the effects of trauma. So, yes, refugees deserve our empathy and compassion.
However, once refugee families are here and settling in, we all start to look more alike. Refugee families become our neighbors, coworkers, and friends. In a country where almost all of us have ancestors from somewhere else, we all share some version of this experience. As refugees transition from being newly arrived and getting their bearings into the kind of hard working, aspirational new Americans we see every day, they need less sympathy and more respect.
Refugee families contribute more than we realize to our communities. Newcomers are revitalizing whole cities in the rust belt, and the data shows that communities that welcome aspiring Americans benefit economically and socially. It turns out an influx of talent and know-how creates opportunities for everyone.
The smart folks at Welcoming America and the Office of Refugee Resettlement know this, and they want to make sure the good news spreads. However, the majority of the country’s perception of the refugee experience as difficult and traumatic has made it hard for people to recognize just how well new Americans eventually integrate into the fabric of our society and how much they contribute.
Though the refugee experience certainly contains struggle, we are all enriched by it. We need to remember that today’s new restaurant owner, taxi driver, or teacher may have been yesterday’s refugee. In essence, the refugee experience needs better public relations!
To that end, Welcoming America asked us at LightBox Collaborative to think about how to “reframe” the refugee experience. What are the messages we need to share? What are the stories that need telling? We listened, we studied the research and together we came up with this toolkit that is designed to help us “Reframe Refugees.”
Because ultimately, the refugee resettlement story is one with a happy ending for all of us.
This blog post was originally published by Welcoming America in May, right after we had put the finishing touches on the Reframing Refugees Messaging Toolkit, supported by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In recent weeks, record numbers of unaccompanied children have arrived at the US border, increasing media coverage and raising awareness of refugees and immigration. We thought this would be a good time to share the messaging toolkit, designed to help activists re-frame the refugee story to focus on real-life happy endings.
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Logo courtesy of Welcoming America
Amanda Cooper is a LightBox collaborator who believes stories help us understand one another and provide a solid foundation for community dialogue.