Last Friday marked the beginning of the three-day Yalla Vote summit conference at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Hosted by the Arab American Institute, a national nonprofit, the conference aimed to provide refugees from the Middle East the chance to engage with presidential candidates ahead of the 2016 election. One of the keynote speakers was Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley.

Before O’Malley spoke, three panelists — Radhia Fakhrildeen and Noor Al Dabbagh from Iraq and Moustafa Assad from Syria — discussed their experiences migrating to the United States with me and the rest of the auditorium.

After the panel, there was a break in the conference while O’Malley arrived. Minutes before O’Malley gave his speech, he met the panelists personally in a small room next to the auditorium. He came into the center of a circle of chairs where the refugees were sitting. The press buzzed around the edges of the circle. While he placed his hand on his chest and nodded his head and listened to each of their names, I couldn’t help but feel that this breakout circle was more about the refugees meeting O’Malley than O’Malley really hearing and addressing the refugees’ concerns.

If O’Malley had been at the panel, he could have spent his time in the small room engaging in a real, productive conversation with the refugees about how to solve the asylum process — the means by which refugees seek protection granted by the United States. Instead, he spent the time hearing the refugees recap the stories they had just told. He stated that he wants the United States to accept more refugees, but he did not generate a dialogue about how the United States is going to accommodate them. After all, he was sitting among Fakhrildeen, Al Dabbagh and Assad, who all have valuable insights into how the process works, or more accurately, didn’t work.

My feeling was reinforced once O’Malley exited the small breakout room and entered the auditorium to give his speech.

O’Malley called for the United States to admit 65,000 Syrian refugees. As of September, the United States has accepted 1,500 refugees. Last month, the Obama administration announced it will increase that number to 10,000 in 2016.

Beyond these numbers, O’Malley noted how some leaders of the United States are shaping a problematic culture.

“Ben Carson flat out said he would not be comfortable with a president who happened to be Muslim,” O’Malley said. “One wonders, from a man who understands the value of education, what sort of message that sends to Muslim American little boys and girls studying American history.”

O’Malley called for the need of a culture shift: away from Islamophobia and xenophobia and toward an understanding of the pain and struggles refugees face and a reminder that all of us should know our country is made up of immigrants.

“The image of our nation is not a barbed wire fence, it is the Statue of Liberty,” he said.

Accepting more refugees is the moral thing to do (O’Malley asked the audience, “If they don’t come, how is it going to affect our soul?”) and it has garnered support from the International Rescue Committee, other presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and more than 100,000 signatures through an online petition. Nonetheless, O’Malley’s call to action did not get at the root of the problem voiced by the refugees I heard that day.

During the panel, the refugees didn’t spend time telling us about their time in Iraq or Syria and didn’t spend time telling us about their current life in the United States. What they did describe was the lengthy struggle they endured with the Department of Homeland Security once in the United States attempting to gain citizenship. This transitional period is problematic — the time when the most intense suffering and pain of refugees occurs. This transitional period is what needs O’Malley’s and all leaders’ attention.

Noor Al Dabbagh arrived in the United States in January 2014 with her husband and son and couldn’t get a job because she and her husband’s work authorizations wouldn’t process. Additionally, because they had yet to receive asylum status, they did not qualify for government assistance or medical insurance.

Radhia Fakhrildeen’s husband’s asylum application was denied upon entry. This has separated him from his family for almost a year now.

O’Malley did briefly address the asylum system, saying it needs to be modernized so that problems like these don’t occur, but he did not specify how this would happen, what DHS’ role should play and any other measures for how to improve the process of being granted asylum. 

It is wonderful that O’Malley wants to inspire each American to welcome refugees with open arms. However, his call to action lacked concrete plans that left me feeling more overwhelmed by the problem than inspired by his solution.

If 65,000 refugees are coming, are we going to be hearing 65,000 stories just like the ones of Fakhrildeen, Al Dabbagh and Assad?

Claire Bryan is an LSA junior and senior editorial page editor.

 

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