NEVER MET

A proud man from a small country was telling me how people he had never met were quite dangerous types. I work with refugees? So what! He knew all about them. I shouldn’t be fooled! He had seen them on the television. Hordes of them were flooding over the border, and two of them had been interviewed. He had seen them on the news. And he was very upset about it, and very adamant. He wanted to warn me against them.

“They didn’t come through the usual channels, so our country was not prepared to receive them. There were several thousand, and they just walked over the border liked they owned the place. We didn’t have a sit-down meal prepared, of course, and all we could find on short notice was oatmeal. So we made a lot of oatmeal, and distributed it, so everyone could fill their bellies.

“One man who was interviewed, he was angry about getting oatmeal. He was disdainful. He said that oatmeal was what they feed their animals – and their women at home! Ha! Yes, he said that. Why should he come here?”

“The other man, you know the type, young, nervous, suspicious sores on face, I am an old musician, I can recognize a total tweaker, clearly a drug addict, saying he demands to get money from our government. He wants handouts, not work! He wants our money! To use drugs! Tell me, why should I work for him? Why should I work for any of them?”

“Nobody wants to talk about it, because it’s not politically correct, but why are 90% of these refugees young men? Why did they leave their parents and grandparents, their young wives and small children, to suffer on alone in their home country, if things are so bad? You defend your family with your life’s blood. You stand and fight like a man! These refugees are not real men. No, I’ve never met them – I don’t need to – I saw them.”

As someone who lives and works in a global community, and has the benefit of meeting and interacting intimately with people from around the world, especially from war zones, I am always astounded by the strongly held opinions of people who have never met a refugee. Never spoken with a recent immigrant. Have no friends who speak another language or were born in another country. Have never lived abroad or faced the loneliness of being the outsider. Who don’t know more than the mass media chooses to show, yet feel such an intense certainty and even indignation about who these people are and how they will surely ruin the host countries.

These archetypes of the disdainful newcomer, the dangerous newcomer, the lazy beggars and the criminal types, live on in the psyches of people around the world. In part, because communities in general are not excited about taking on new burdens with people they have never met. In part, because their governments are not very good about listening to the voice of the people in the actual communities who are supposed to take in the swelling masses of newcomers. And in large part, because the hosts have never met the guests. So the media gets to tell their story.

Ten years from now, some of these same uninvited guests of reluctant hosts will be living happily in various communities around the world, having picked up the language, made friends, found work, and sent their children to school. Some of them will have found a way to go back home. Some will be dead. Some will be lonely. Some really will use drugs or break the law, and they will serve to reinforce the stereotypes that bleed out onto all their population.

For those fortunate ones who truly find a new home in the host country, the people who have met them will change their preconceived notions. These strangers who meet will get to know each other over time, trust each other, become friends and even family. Their shared humanity will weave them together into community, as has happened since our earliest ancestors walked on two legs to their neighbors and beyond. And those who never meet these wanderers will continue to hold on to their comfortable ideas about who these newcomers are, based on news stories such as the one this particular man chose to remember in his own way.