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If we stay true to our stated beliefs, we may want to cut refugees slack

May 20, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

The political refugees whom the Virginia Council of Churches has relocated in Washington County no longer need fear that commandos will burst into their homes late at night, raping their sisters, killing their parents and severing their limbs.

So they have that going for them.

In fact, given the big picture, they might not even care that they are being verbally pilloried by the community at large and denied a pittance in tax dollars. Next to getting your arm chopped off, an anonymous tongue-lashing in "Mail Call" probably seems like a bouquet of roses.

But as a community, aren't we proud?

Aren't we just so pleased with ourselves for putting these poor, scared, long-suffering people in their place?

We have rousted our own version of Christian charity and made it clear they are unwelcome in our town and we, here in the richest country on the planet, have denied them a few pennies to ease their pain.

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Good show. Thanks for coming and remember to kick a few kittens on the way home.

Well no, we wouldn't do that. Given the uproar over the recent pet-food shake-up, we have made it clear that we care more about an American dog than we do a human being from some other land.

And don't mind the fact that Washington County can't spare $15,000. They're used to making do on nothing. Forget that it would take the average resident of Sierra Leone 70 years of labor to equal the annual income of the average American.

When the idea of providing tax money was brought to bear, Commissioners President John Barr said "the floodgates" of protest opened. The phrase "Buddy, can you spare a dime" is operative, because that's what it would have cost each person in Washington County.

Ten cents. But this is a waste of our "hard-earned tax dollars."

The shame isn't that the predictable hard-earned-tax-dollar crowd - the people who don't want any tax money spent unless it's spent on them - came through loud and clear. The shame is that none of us, myself included, immediately came forward to shout them down.

I had thought, aw, too much opposition, I don't know these people, it isn't my fight.

That's an embarrassment on my part. It is my fight, and here's why: When I was born an American, I hit the lottery. It is an exclusive winner's circle, the odds of membership only one in 23. That's a natural and God-given gift that, though often forgotten, should not be taken lightly.

We hit the jackpot that is known as America through no talent, skill or initiative of our own. Is it too much to ask that we show our gratitude by thanking our own personal God and sharing some of what we have with humanity?

Fact is, I know this community pretty well and I know the goodness in our hearts. I also know this. You can take the sternest among us - all those who have voiced their outrage to the commissioners or to call-in lines, or chat rooms. Take any one of them and confront him or her with an actual refugee. After hearing the refugee's story, there is not one among them who would not give that unfortunate person the last dollar in his wallet, or the last 50 cents in her purse.

We talk tough, but our hearts don't back it up. Do any of us really believe that these people's lives and the lives of their little children are not worth 10 cents?

Barr surmises, correctly I would guess, that the general population has confused the refugee issue with the national immigration issue. There is such a knee-jerk, anti-immigration mood in the country right now that the confusion is understandable.

But the differences are important.

The general immigration issue - illegals flooding our southern border looking for work - can be argued by intelligent people either way.

The refugees are measured in hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. They come not by way of simple economics, but by way of a real fear of maiming, torturing and death at the hands of a political enemy.

In Washington County, unlike Northern Virginia, they have a chance at a job they can do that will pay what it takes to live. We should not consider it a curse that our lower cost of living and employment opportunities make us an attractive resettlement community.

They will, if we let them, more than repay us with learning opportunities and a flavor of the international community. Their numbers are not such that they will take away our jobs or threaten our English language.

Our local governments, given an extreme benefit of the doubt, might be excused for doing what they are elected to do - representing the will of the people. And some who have seats on the council or commission, those whose worldview does not and never will extend beyond Greencastle, cannot be expected to carry the banner of enlightenment.

But the rest should take a moment to reflect on what it means to be a leader - of what it means to be a voice for all people, minorities included. Perhaps they could be convinced to change their position and explain why it's OK to care.

They fear for their chances of re-election?

Perhaps. But going down to the refrain of "Vote against this commissioner; he reached out to some of God's poorest and most desperate children" is something I believe most of us could live with.

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