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UW panel analyzes the refugee response

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In the past two years, 4,100 refugees were resettled in the greater Seattle area. Though the city has largely embraced these new members into the community, not all Americans support the resettlement of refugees in the United States. In an attempt to break down the attitudes surrounding the refugee crisis, Amnesty International UW hosted a panel titled “The Rationale Behind the Refugee Response” on Monday night.

According to the event page, the night would hold a “discussion panel investigating ideologies of xenophobia, the rise of white nationalism and national rights.” The panel was comprised of Arzoo Osanloo, Alys Weinbaum, Kathie Friedman, Jamie Mayerfeld, and Carolyn Pinedo-Turnovsky, all of whom are UW professors with a wide array of focuses. 

Amnesty International is a human rights organization that focuses on combating infringements of human rights around the world. This quarter, the UW chapter has turned its attention to the refugee crisis.

“This quarter, we really wanted to look at some of the theory behind [the refugee crisis] too,” said Elizabeth Bernbaum, a co-chair of Amnesty International UW. “We wanted to look at and investigate the rise of white nationalism, xenophobia, and national rights all as they relate to refugees. So that was really our attempt and we tried to get professors from different backgrounds so that we could get that idea.” 

Bernbaum helped start the conversation by posing pre-drafted questions. The first question asked the panelists to help define “refugee.” Osanloo, who is currently teaching a class on U.S. asylum and refugee law, provided the technical definitions used by organizations such as the United Nations, which Mayerfeld noted are very narrow. 

As multiple professors pointed out, getting refugee status is an arduous task, frankly rare, and a lot like winning the lottery. The process of seeking asylum is similarly difficult and gaining lawful permanent residency takes a long time. 

The discussion proved timely and extremely relevant as many of the professors brought into conversation the recent executive order barring immigration to the United States from seven countries. 

“It’s a challenge because we want to put a number on it,” Pinedo-Turnovsky said when asked how many refugees the U.S. should let in.

But as other panelists echoed, it is important to humanize refugees and to see them as our neighbors, teachers, and community members and instead of faceless numbers.

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Weinbaum pointed out the “long histories of internalized racism” in the U.S. to help explain what is happening and, as she put it, is enduring like a legacy today. Mayerfeld added that racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration cannot be separated. 

Osanloo explained acts and laws in America both past and present have perpetuated these issues. According to Pinedo-Turnovsky, laws serve as instructive narratives for not only how many we let in, but how we treat them. 

Weinbaum proposed we think about citizenship differently, because though there is an idea that everybody has access to humanity, citizenship restrictions say otherwise. Not everyone gets to be a citizen and to have human rights, Weinbaum said.

“What is the criteria [for being] a part of our community?” Friedman asked. 

The panelists challenged the audience to consider such questions and also gave them the opportunity to ask their own during the open Q&A. The panel concluded with the professors encouraging the audience to get involved in local organizations, stressing the privilege and power of civic action. 

“Everybody has to think more about the way we view other humans and other people,” Bernbaum said. “The idea that we can even put a name on someone and say that they are a citizen versus a refugee is a bit odd ... it doesn’t even just apply to refugees, it also applies to all immigrants. It’s very odd that we look at people differently based on where they come from, because what does it matter if you’re born in the U.S. or you’re born somewhere else? You’re just born and you live.” 

Amnesty International UW welcomes anyone looking to get more involved and holds weekly meetings Mondays at 5 p.m. in Thomson 119.


Reach contributing writer Ester Kim at Twitter: @esterkim_

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