Afraid of Our Own

I hear people asking why local organizations are working on behalf of refugees when there are so many of “our own” in need of support. Often this question is accompanied by veiled or not-so-veiled Islamophobia or xenophobia, with the implication that Arab Americans are not real Americans, or that people do not enter this country every day with the hope of becoming American too.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, a cab driver in Pittsburgh was shot in the back by a passenger after revealing that he was Pakistani. On Monday, two Muslim women were attacked in Tampa, Florida. And I will never forget the 2012 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which occurred during the temple’s preparation of langar, a free communal meal open to anyone, symbolizing equality among all people, regardless of religion, race, age, gender or social status.

I want to talk about the myth of scarcity. Much like the question above, the myth of scarcity is presented as an either-or decision. Either we have a living wage, or we have jobs. Either we provide housing for our homeless, or refugees from across the globe. For many working-class people, either-or decisions are all too familiar. But the United States is the wealthiest and most productive country in the history of the world, and as a society we have enough to help all kinds of people in need.

At the YWCA, we provide housing, counseling and support for women and families in Missoula. Every year, when the temperatures drop, and there are homeless families on our waiting list, when people leave an abusive spouse with just the clothes on their back, the YWCA relies on the generosity of donors and volunteers to help us help others. Last year, hundreds of volunteers dedicated a collective 10,000 hours to the YWCA. Our programs would not be the same without these individual generosities.

Contrast this with the misdirected anger toward those who come with almost nothing, fleeing thousands of miles from terrorism, crossing linguistic, cultural and national barriers to a strange new place to call home. The death toll in Syria is three times the population of Missoula. Half the country is homeless, and one fifth have fled. They are men, women, children, the elderly. How do we convince ourselves that our anger is justified? Refugees undergo the strictest background checks compared to anyone entering the U.S., and yet studies and headlines show that the greatest terror threat to our own is exactly that – our own.

Anxiety over refugees and Arab Americans feeds an “us vs. them” illusion that bars us from empathy. We see it Pittsburgh, Tampa, Oak Creek, and we see it in our own state’s history of internment in Fort Missoula. The YWCA has far-reaching and diverse programs in order to meet the unique and pressing needs of our participants, and our advocacy is based on two simple questions. Questions that we can personally ask ourselves: Does this person need help? Yes. Can I do something? Again, yes. It is important not abandon our ideals and let fear smother our capacity to take action, and so I encourage you to join the YWCA, and efforts like Soft Landing, in creating a safe and welcoming Missoula for everyone.


This piece originally appeared in the Missoulian.