In This Episode
How can America welcome refugees, embrace a humane approach to migration, and reclaim our identity as a nation of immigrants? With 80 million people displaced worldwide, this is a crisis even if it’s not always in the headlines.
Host Ben Rhodes talks to Zarlasht Halaimzai – a refugee from Afghanistan who has dedicated her life to helping refugees – as well as a mix of activists and political leaders about the rising tide of xenophobia and what we can do about it.
EPISODE 7: XENOPHOBIA
Millions of images flood our screens every day.
So it’s saying something when one photo… grabs everyone’s attention.
In summer Twenty-Sixteen, it was a shot of Omran Daqneesh. A five-year-old refugee from the Syrian city of Aleppo. Where war had sent millions fleeing for their lives.
Omran was injured in an airstrike. And in the photo, he’s sitting in an ambulance. Bleeding and covered in dust. With a look of shock on his face that’d be heartbreaking on a grown soldier. He’s so little, his feet barely reach the edge of the seat.
Half a world away — in Scarsdale, New York — a 6-year-old kid named Alex saw that photo. And decided to write a letter to President Obama.
A month later, at a United Nations summit that the U.S. organized to secure more help for refugees…
…I watched Obama read Alex’s letter aloud.
OBAMA: He said he wanted Omran to come live with him and his family. “Since he won’t bring toys,” Alex wrote, “I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him addition and subtraction. My little sister will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. We can all play together. We will give him a family, and he will be our brother.” Those are the words of a six year old boy. He teaches us a lot. (APPLAUSE)
The year Obama gave that speech, his Administration welcomed nearly a hundred thousand refugees to America.
But at around the same time… Donald Trump was advocating a different approach.
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On the campaign trail, he promised what he called “extreme vetting” procedures of all immigrants.
And something more extreme for refugees.
TRUMP: I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win… they’re going back. They’re going back. Im telling you, they’re going back (APPLAUSE)
Two months later, Trump won the election.
And I wondered what Alex, in Scarsdale, was thinking. Knowing Omran Daqneesh probably wouldn’t be coming over to play anytime soon.
I’m Ben Rhodes, and welcome back to “Missing America.” A look at the viruses sweeping across the world in the absence of American leadership.
This week: Xenophobia. Fear of outsiders. It’s been around since humans formed into tribes.
But since the middle of the last decade, when a wave of people from the Middle East fled to the west to escape war? Far-right politicians have leapt at the chance to turn it to their political advantage.
We’ll hear the story of how that refugee crisis unfolded:
HALAIMZAI: People were coming because they were hoping that their human rights, their desire to rebuild their lives, would be respected by the European nation states. And that was completely wrong.
We’ll also learn why it still has such an outsized effect on world politics.
Then I’ll talk to progressives here and abroad — some of them refugees themselves. Who’ll tell us how the U.S. can stop fueling xenophobia… and start bringing the world together.
On this episode of Missing America.
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Zarlasht Halaimzai runs an NGO in Greece, called The Refugee Trauma Initiative.
It provides mental health experts to help refugees deal — emotionally — with being stateless.
Without a home.
Zarlasht can relate. Her family fled Afghanistan in the late ‘90s, during the country’s civil war.
HALAIMZAI: People started fighting from street to streets as the militias moved into Kabul. And the interim government just kind of collapsed and they started fighting each other. And so my parents took the very, very, very difficult decision to leave.
A difficult decision… that more and more families have to make.
For years, Zarlasht has watched refugee populations rise around the world, including Iraqis and Afghans displaced by the wars we fought there.
But the tipping point… was Syria.
SYRIA: (bombs)…The battle is raging. Free Syrian Forces have detonated a bomb…below the roof where snipers are trapped…Casualties are mounting.
Syria’s civil war began in Twenty-eleven. Bashar al-Assad bombarded his people. Then ISIS took root in the country. By Twenty-fifteen, an estimated four million Syrians had fled the violence.
SYRIANEW NEWS CLIPS: Syria’s population has dwindled since the uprising against the Assad regime began more than four years ago. There is a humanitarian crisis playing out in the Middle East in countries where millions of Syrian’s have sought shelter from the fighting.
HALAIMZAI: So many people at the same time. The conflict in Syria accelerated at a pace which took Afghanistan years to get to. So, you know, Afghans were leaving, have been leaving, over a period of 40 years. And that’s… that’s a very different experience to Syrians who, you know, literally were displaced in a space of two years.
The UN oversees a set of international rules, dating back to nineteen fifty-one, which define who qualifies as a refugee, and how nations are supposed to support them.
Some give refugees temporary shelter in camps. Some provide a permanent home. And some help fund the whole system.
But even before the Syrian crisis, the system was overwhelmed.
HALAIMZAI:The international aid community — the whole paradigm of aid is not equipped to deal with what’s happening in the world right now. It’s designed for short term emergency responses. And all these different countries have been in chronic conflict for decades. So the aid industry is just not able to deal with chronic, protracted crises.
Then millions of Syrians flooded into the mix. And people in the west were about to fully understand just how overloaded the system was.
Especially, the people of Europe.
Zarlasht says for many fleeing Syrians, Europe wasn’t the intended destination. First they migrated to neighboring states: Lebanon, Jordan, and especially Turkey.
HALAIMZAI: Many were hoping that their stay in Turkey would be a short term thing and that there would be a resolution to the conflict and that they would be able to go back.
In fact millions of Syrians are still in Turkey today — waiting for peace, so they can go home.
But as refugee camps became crowded, and the war dragged on… millions more felt they had to move on.
HALAIMZAI: I think the people that eventually left Turkey came because the response was so terrible to refugees? Refugees experience a huge amount of racism in every country that they go to. So they weren’t getting their basic needs met. They were being deported. There’s just a whole lot of brutalization that was happening in the neighboring countries. And so those who could, started to make their way to Europe.
And not just because Europe was nearby.
HALAIMZAI: The Europeans or, you know, “the West,” although I find the term problematic, sells a message to the world, you know. And that message is that “We are pro human rights. We are pro protection of vulnerable groups. We are where the international institutions that are meant to provide that protection, that’s who we support.” And that’s intentionally sold to millions of people around the world. And so people were coming because they were hoping that their human rights, their safety, their desire to rebuild their lives would be respected by the European nation states. And that was completely wrong.
Europe had spent the preceding years dealing with fallout from the 2008 financial crisis — not getting ready for a migrant crisis. When Syrians started coming ashore, the region just wasn’t prepared.
HALAIMZAI: So in arriving in Greece, no one was responding to what was happening. The vast majority of the responders were civilian volunteers that were going to beaches to greet refugees, to give them clothes, to give them water. It wasn’t the European Union or the U.N., you know. That happened later on when the crisis climaxed.
But Europe’s new wave of hard-right politicians?
They’d been preparing for this moment for years.
These are leaders you’ll remember from our episode about far-right nationalists.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban had long been demonizing immigrants — now he used the migrants to play up fears of some kind of Muslim invasion. He had an electrified razor-wire border fence built. And recruited an army of quote “Border Hunters” to patrol it.
HUNGARY CLIP: “The number of abused refugees pushed out of Hungary has been rising for months, say human rights organizations.”
HUNGARY: (1-2 seconds of refugee speaking in native language) “The Hungarian police forced us to lay face down on the ground. Then they started hitting us with canes…Then they sent their dogs on us.
Meanwhile, in England, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were ginning up anti-immigrant sentiment of their own — as the country prepared to vote on Brexit. News reports of foreign hordes coming to overwhelm the UK… played right into their narrative.
UK MIGRANTS NEWS CLIP: People from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, and Africa, are all in the city… Britain remains the dream destination for many migrants seen as a land of opportunity.
Zarlasht witnessed the fallout from that — in the French border town of Calais. For many refugees, it was the last stop before their final destination: Britain.
HALAIMZAI: People in Calais were coming to the UK because they had family in the U.K. So they had a very legitimate legal reason for reunification with their family. Except that the UK government wasn’t allowing them to do that.
So refugees were trying to jump onto these lorries or the cars that were crossing, to try and get to the other side. And there had been a makeshift camp in Calais for years. But in 2015, the numbers really spiked. So at one point, if I’m not mistaken, there was something like 10,000 people stuck in a tiny, tiny camp, and they called it “the jungle” because it was this, I mean, this horrific place.
And the only difference, you know, between Turkey and France was that in Turkey, people still believe this idea that there would be some protection for them somewhere else. In Calais, they had completely given up on that.
But there was one country, and one leader…holding out some hope.
EURONEWS: A million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, with the peak migration being reached in September, when Chancellor Merkel decided to open the frontiers.
Angela Merkel flung open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees. Offering a permanent home.
BLOOMBERG HANS: Do you want the discussions on “Do you build more tents, or build more schools?” And what Germany’s talking about is building more schools; to have a longer-term integration process.
“Long-term integration.” Merkel was among the few European leaders thinking of Syria’s migrants this way. And Zarlasht says… it wasn’t just out of the kindness of her heart.
HALAIMZAI: I think she didn’t just make a humane decision, she made a smart decision. You know, there was a rationale behind why she allowed so many people to come into Germany. And it wasn’t just altruistic.
All the data and the evidence shows immigrants are good for countries. You know, they start businesses, they work really hard. They do jobs that, the natives don’t want to do. There’s a whole bunch of benefits that immigrants and refugees bring. So I think that was definitely part of it. Germany has a, an aging population like the U.K. They need a young, productive, motivated workforce that’s been educated in another country. You know, so — the Syrian government essentially has paid for these people to have those skills. And the German government can now reap the rewards. You know, that’s a very good decision for Germany.
Practically? Yes it was.
But politically, it turned out… not so much. At least in the short term.
NEWS REPORTER: Twelve people were wounded in a suicide bomb attack in the foyer of a concert hall in Anspach, on July the 24th. It happened when a 27 year-old Syrian detonated a bomb in his backpack.
Merkel was already getting grief for her migrant policy… when her country was rocked by a terror attack. Hot on the heels of others in France.
CBS NEWS CLIP: Dozens of people were killed in France Thursday night in what’s being investigated as a terror attack. A truck plowed through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the French resort town of Nice……
Some of these attacks were by asylum-seekers. Some weren’t.
EURONEWS CLIP: A home-grown network of extremists was identified, based in Brussels and Belgium…
But the public was hardly paying attention to the details.
It played right into the hands of fearmongers. Across the continent, progressives were on the defensive. Merkel’s political standing plummeted. And with it… the whole idea of compassion towards refugees.
That’s when Obama made the decision… to show refugees compassion of our own.
Like Merkel’s migrant policy… it wasn’t a purely altruistic move.
Angela Merkel was Obama’s closest friend among world leaders, and an island of competence and stability amidst a rising tide of extremism. She needed America’s support.
But more importantly, Obama knew what Zarlasht said is true:
The west had sent a message. It had set itself up as a home for the vulnerable. If we turned our backs on the biggest wave of tired, poor huddled masses in decades…
…we’d be giving up any moral authority we had.
Obama decided to take in more refugees. And to take the political flak from Republicans along with it.
CBS NEWS CLIP: RUBIO: We cannot conduct effective, reliable background checks. And if you admit 10,000 people, and 9,999 of them are good people, and one of them is an ISIS killer? You have a problem.
KASICH: We just have to make sure that we’re not inviting people in here who pose a threat to us. Who come in here under the cover of refugee status, whose view it is to come in here and destroy us. That is not unreasonable, for America to say “no.”
At one point during this period, I remember sitting on Air Force One.
Listening in on a call between the President and then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Ryan was gonna move forward with a bill that would suspend all refugee admissions to the U.S.
“Paul,” Obama said, “I understand the problems you have in your caucus, but you’re Speaker now. This isn’t something to play politics with. This is about who we are as a country.”
Ryan toned down the bill. And Obama got his refugees.
Last year, the European Union declared the migration crisis over. Nearly ninety percent fewer asylum-seekers crossed the Mediterranean than five years ago, at the height of the wave.
But Zarlasht says for thousands still in refugee camps… and even for people who were integrated into European life… the scars will last.
HALAIMAZAI: Ahmed, my friend, who is from Kobani, who I met in Calais, he is now in London. He is a programmer. He has his own apartment. He’s planning to go to university. He’s been reunited with his family. And he’s one of the most engaged, productive, wonderful people that I know in London right now. So that can be the end story, right? If… but the thing that always strikes me when I see him, because he lives with the trauma of having to have risked his life to come to the U.K. every single day. That’s not something that you get over, right. Every night trying to jump on a lorry to try and make it to your sisters. He didn’t have to go through that. That is a totally avoidable situation.
And the migration has left scars on European politics, too.
By the narrowest of margins, the UK voted for Brexit.
Meanwhile, Viktor Orban was legitimized. When he led the charge to condemn Merkel’s migrant policy — many European leaders joined him.
It solidified his power… and emboldened him. Last year he started detaining refugees in shipping containers, behind barbed wire.
As for the U.S… We’re feeling the ripple effects, too.
That conversation between Obama and Paul Ryan in Twenty-fifteen? It ended in a compromise: Yes, Obama got to admit more asylum-seekers. Republicans got increased vetting of everyone coming in. But the guy running to replace Obama? Had a different kind of vetting in mind.
TRUMP: I call it extreme – extreme vetting. Our country has enough problems. We don’t need more. And these are problems like we’ve never had before.
After the election, the Trump Administration methodically lowered steadily lowered the number of refugees admitted to the United States. Result: we’ve gone from taking in over a hundred thousand refugees a year… to just over ten thousand.
And instead of supporting allies like Merkel… and denouncing despots like Orban who put people in camps… Trump’s Administration is building camps of its own. And filling them with children seeking asylum.
Sadly, there are plenty more people he can demonize to stoke up xenophobia in his base:
Right now, there are nearly 80 million refugees on the planet, looking for a home.
The most since World War Two.
So what can America do now? A problem that massive doesn’t get solved just by removing Trump from office. What happens after November? And how do you cure millions… of fear?
The solutions will come from Washington, our allies… and from each other.
BARBE: I think that if local people have, I don’t know, create a business, work together, fall in love — that would actually change the way people perceive migration on the long term.
Coming up on “Missing America.” Stay with us.
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Flashback to Twenty-sixteen. When Angela Merkel seemed politically doomed.
The U.S. had backed her up on her refugee policy. But few other countries had. And when Trump won the Presidency, she was all alone.
CNBC NEWS CLIP: She may have been Time magazine’s Person Of 2015, but back home, Angela Merkel is no Miss Popular. In fact, 40% of Germans would like her to resign, a new poll revealed. Why? Because of her welcoming stance on refugees.
Even Merkel’s fans worried she’d be ousted in Germany, and a broader right-wing wave would sweep in.
MILIBAND: When I saw the crisis bubbling in twenty-fifteen/sixteen, my first reaction was real fear that the German move — in the absence of wider European support — was going to produce a backlash.
That’s David Miliband. He runs the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian NGO — and he’s a former Foreign Secretary of the UK Government.
MILIBAND But then the way in which the German authorities went through processing the asylum claims did give me confidence that this would not tip over German politics. Even in small towns in Germany that I visited I was very struck about the systematic way in which the asylum claims were being processed fast — in very strong contrast to the US situation, for example — the way in which the integration was then taken seriously. And then today, five years later, the statistics as well as the stories show a picture of a country which actually came to terms with a very significant flow that on any conventional assumption, would have been seen as too many too… too fast.
Don’t get me wrong – there has been an enduring political backlash in Germany….far right parties have made inroads in the Parliament.
But at the same time… Germany proved it could be done:
You could take in a lot of refugees, fast. Integrate them into society… and begin to reap the economic and social benefits that Zarlasht talked about. Despite many voters’ fear of outsiders.
So it seems to me the question is: How can America help replicate that success around the world?
Miliband says the process has to start…
MILIBAND: I mean, the first and most obvious is to get your own house in order. No one is going to take any lectures or lessons, unless the homefront is taken care of. And so whether it be the separation of children at the border or leading on refugee resettlement, the US needs to set its own example.
Trump has set the worst possible example. He’s slashed refugee admissions. He’s separated children from their families at the border. And he’s actually tried to criminalize the act of seeking asylum in the first place — in violation of the rules America has lived with for 70 years.
MARGON: So everybody has a right to try to claim asylum. And despite what the Trump administration says, you don’t actually have to come through a legal border to claim asylum.
That’s Sarah Margon. When I spoke to her, she ran the Washington office for Human Rights Watch. Now, she’s at the Open Society Foundations.
MARGON: They’re trying to undermine what has been long-standing asylum policy in terms of the interviews and in terms of the assessment, and then to criminalize them if they enter the country and detain them — you know, separating them from their kids is horrific, but in general, the detention of people trying to claim asylum is insane. They’re not criminals for trying to do that, but they have been turned into criminals by the administration.
So the first step is simple: Be a nation that honors its moral and legal obligations. Recognize that people fleeing persecution shouldn’t be treated like criminals.
That’ll happen if we get rid of Trump in November. But the xenophobia that helped lead to Trump in the first place won’t just disappear with him.
How do we take in more refugees, and resettle them successfully in America.… when a big chunk of Americans, on some level, are motivated to shout this?
RALLY CROWD: Build that wall! Build that wall!
MAHDI: First of all, we should understand and respect the fact that some people are afraid.
Sammy Mahdi is a member of the Belgian Parliament… and a child of refugees.
MAHDI: And that is the first step that we often do not make. We are not listening to them. We’re sometimes even laughing at them, ridiculizing them, telling them, ”They maybe have another skin color, but they are people like you and me.” It’s true. But still, people feel afraid. So the first thing is to understand the fact that people feel afraid.
And how do you ease their fears?
MAHDI: For me, it’s really easy: numbers. Talking about numbers. Whenever I go to a workshop or give a speech somewhere and I’m talking to people who are afraid of migration, I’m always asking them how many migrants entered the country this year? How many? Do you know? None of them. None of them knows how many. And that’s the biggest issue. If you don’t know how many people are entering your country and you get fake news and everywhere on social media, you have the feeling that your country is getting overwhelmed.
In Belgium, for instance, we get 7 percent Muslim population. We had a survey in Belgium asking people how many– what is the percentage of Muslims you think there is in Belgium? People in Belgium thought we were 30 or 40 percent. We have the biggest gap between reality and beliefs in Belgium.
If we can close that gap — it might alleviate one of the main fears people have about refugees: that they’re coming to take our jobs.
In fact? Refugees don’t arrive in enough numbers to dent a country’s job market.
What’s more — most aren’t coming to find work. They’re coming because they fear for their lives.
But there’s another fear in society – that refugees could be terrorists. That’s almost never the case, but that doesn’t stop fear-mongering politicians and sensationalist media from hyping the danger.
When I spoke to Maryan Hassan, she was Somalia’s chief negotiator for the WTO.
HASSAN: I have in no way, shape or form had to go through the trauma of what Somali people and others had gone through in the 1990s and… for someone to leave their home? You know, I think it speaks for itself. So sometimes looking at the fact that, you know, media can perpetuate this narrative of them being these people are just coming in and want to take their jobs and their houses. And just thinking about it from a humanities perspective like– this is a woman who would risk her life to go on a boat with a baby, for example. And would you do that? Unless it was like complete dire straits and have absolutely no choice.
But even if we recognize these realities – that people have legitimate reasons to flee their homes, and our countries are in no risk of being over-run by people taking our jobs or committing acts of terrorism – there’s often still a fear that goes beyond logic.
That refugees represent something…..different. Something dangerous.
BARBE: Tech is playing a huge role in that.
That’s Alice Barbe. She runs Singa — a French NGO that tries to create mutual understanding between refugees… and locals in their host countries.
BARBE: When you write ‘migrant’ or ‘refugees’ on Google, the algorithm are going to show you pictures of a mass of people in pain, sometimes very violent images, not only sad or create pity, but also people fighting each other sometimes. And these are the biggest perceptions of migration that whole societies would have through the media and through the politics. So that generates even more and more anger.
The solution, she says? Get locals to encounter refugees in — imagine this — actual real life.
BARBE: There’s a huge lack of connections between refugees and host societies. There was a study in 2013 saying that only 12 percent of refugees in France have interactions on a daily basis with French people. And this is what we need to promote. We have data at Singa saying that the more locals a refugee would know, the more, let’s say “integrated” — I don’t like this word — the happier he would be. And on the other hand, the more a local would meet refugees, the less racist he would be.
Here’s another data point Barbe gave me. If a migrant makes friends with ten locals… that person’ll be on their way to having a job, learning the local language, and maybe even forming romantic relationships… within just nine months.
That’s stabilizing for society. And a cure for fear.
So, how do we create those ten bonds? Singa’s innovation has been to set up business incubators for migrants — a lot of whom are actually highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs. The idea: to introduce refugees to locals as future collaborators – not just charity cases. It’s all based on a concept that Barbe got from President Obama.
BARBE: What he promotes is a world where we do not look at each other — we, we see each other. And we look at the future as a common thing. And when you put a local and a refugee in the same room, if you get to talk about migration and you have the local saying, “Okay, I’m going to save you because you’re a refugee and you need my help,” that will not create a common “us.” But if you put these two same people in the same room and you talk about global warming or common issues that the whole society and the whole world is facing, then you get a unity and an alliance, and then they will share their insights and maybe collaborate together for the future.
Barbe says this kind of positive, intimate interaction is what changes hearts and minds. Not just trying to combat online negativity with online positivity.
BARBE: I do not believe in like all the campaigns, like “hashtag welcome refugees.” I mean, it is good. And we may need to do that. But I don’t think that will change the way people perceive migration. I think that if local people have, I don’t know, yoga, sport, creative business, work together, fall in love, that would actually change the way people perceive migration on the long term.
In our current COVID moment, of course, a lot of this close-quarters collaboration has to be on hold.
But meanwhile, there’s plenty of work to be done on the other pieces of the puzzle: Reforming the current international refugee system… and turning it into something that actually works.
MILIBAND: I try to say to people: The choice is not between whether migrants come or not. It’s whether they come in an unplanned, undocumented, illegal, dangerous way or whether they come in an organized, processed, secure and legal way that recognizes different needs, and also recognizes that those fleeing in fear of their lives are in a different position than those who are seeking a better life.
America is uniquely positioned to do this. Back in the 1950s, after all, we were a major architect of the current refugee system. And we have a track record of taking in large refugee populations and asylum-seekers.
So when we do open our doors, we not only set an example for what to do…we can also set an example for how to do it.
NEWMAN: Look, at the end of the day, given our size and our stature and our power, we are inevitably a model that other countries will follow. For good or for ill. And so that is a role we inevitably have to take on.
That’s Ronnie Newman. He worked on refugee issues on Obama’s National Security Council – at the height of the crisis. These days he’s political director for the ACLU.
NEWMAN: And so best case scenario is we can figure out the right playbook to run. We can run it aggressively, and everybody else just picks up the same playbook and runs it, too. Here’s an example. When we were trying to figure out how to process Syrian refugees in places like Jordan and Turkey more quickly, in lots of ways, we copied a portion of the Canadians playbook. They ended up deploying these full service teams, teams that could do refugee interviews, that could do medical checks, that could do security checks, that could package all of the different elements of the process in sort of one bundle in a way that was, you know, quicker. You cut two months from the process, cut three months from the process. So that– you know, the Canadians did that first. We said, “That’s a great idea — we’ll do it, too.” But in lots of ways, even when we are effectively copying the models of others, when we lift them up, we shine a bigger, brighter spotlight on them because everybody’s paying attention to us in a way that may not be the case with other countries.
If America can make these pivots – recognizing refugees’ rights, taking in more refugees, and modeling more efficient ways of taking them in – we can build on that foundation around the world….pursuing agreements to get other countries to take in more refugees.
And we’ll also start enjoying the ultimate cure for xenophobia: Seeing refugees themselves demonstrate how much a country has to gain by taking them in.
Chris Murphy is a leading progressive voice in the Senate.
MURPHY: We’ve learned generation after generation, is that all immigrants grow this country’s economy. But especially refugees. Refugees who are coming here under particularly desperate situations tend to most quickly add enormous economic value to the U.S. economy, maybe because they are just so enormously grateful to have been saved from potential death and destruction by our policy of bringing them here.
He’s seen this up close in the state he represents.
MURPHY: Our Albanian population in Connecticut is not only incredibly economically important, but they’re sort of growing into leadership positions in certain communities. Waterbury’s the fourth biggest city in Connecticut, and much of its political leadership today is Albanian. Albanians that came here through the course of the Balkan wars. That’s made the Waterbury community much, much stronger. And that’s just one example of thousands around the country.
Thousands of American communities, filled with people who were once just distant images of human suffering: Jews fleeing the Holocaust…Vietnamese on boats….the lost boys of Sudan.
Ultimately, this is about what kind of country we are…and, the most important thing that we can do is what that young boy, Alex, was able to do in his letter: see our common humanity in others, including the nearly 80 million displaced people worldwide.
[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]
80 million. It’s a staggering number.
I asked Zarlasht Halaimzai if maybe, paradoxically, it’s the almost incomprehensible size of the crisis… that leads people to react to it with fear, instead of empathy.
Like it’s some kind of monster. And not a collection of people.
HALAIMZAI: Absolutely. And I understand that it’s difficult, right? That, you know, it’s easier to kind of… disengage or not talk about in that way, because individual lives that have been disrupted or ruined or lives that some may never recover — That’s quite a difficult thing to, to hold, right? But, it’s gone so much the other way. That– people, like you said, they don’t even think of them as human beings with their own kind of destinies and interior lives. And one of the things that I always, struggled with when I was growing up, and I struggle with in my work now, is this idea of: “Who feels pain?” And “Whose suffering matters?”
Because, for example, with Afghan people, it just doesn’t seem that people care or want to engage with the fact that an Afghan mother who’s lost a child will have the same feelings of grief and suffering that someone in America might. There’s just this weird kind of discrepancy in how we prioritize people’s pain and people’s trauma. And so I hope that through our work and through kind of telling the stories of the people that we work with, that we can change that a little bit, to say, you know, “We feel pain.” I mean, sounds sort of trite, but we bleed in the same way that everybody else does.
Next week: Our penultimate episode. About the ultimate crisis: Climate Change.
And believe it or not, we’re going to leave you with some hope about it. Because the thing that threatens the entire world… could also bring the entire world together. To fight it.
RUDD: The good news is– the really good news is– the renewable energy revolution and the continuing energy efficiency revolution makes this less hard than it looked even five years ago in Paris. Let alone ten years ago when I was enacting these things in Australia.
The forces that have derailed climate action in Australia, America, and around the world… and how we can overcome them. On the next Missing America.
[CREDITS MUSIC COMES UP]
Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes.
It’s a production of Crooked Media.
The show is produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein.
Rico Gagliano is our story editor.
Austin Fisher is our associate producer.
Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez.
Production support and research from Nimi Uberoi and Sydney Rapp.
Fact checking by Justin Klozco
Original music by Marty Fowler.
The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Tanya Somanader.
Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau.
Thanks for listening.
[CREDITS MUSIC FADES]