Midwest Voices

Valerie Sprout: Immigrants endure a long and difficult journey to America

A family of refugees last week walked toward the border with Serbia from the transit center for refugees near the northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce. Macedonia accepts people only from war-affected zones who declare Austria or Germany as their final destination.
A family of refugees last week walked toward the border with Serbia from the transit center for refugees near the northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce. Macedonia accepts people only from war-affected zones who declare Austria or Germany as their final destination. The Associated Press

Often we think of the U.S. as the best nation in the world. For many people, it is.

We have unparalleled opportunity for people to learn and work. We have a stable government and an equitable justice system. The trash gets picked up, and our children are able to attend school. However, some people in the U.S. would love nothing more than to live in their own countries again.

They would like to speak their own language, enjoy living near their own families and work to improve their own countries. When refugees come here, it may be the choice they wanted to make.

If you live in Kansas City, you’ve probably been asked more than once why you decided to live here. The weather, especially now, can be harsh.

We don’t have mountains or an ocean. We don’t have good public transportation. In some areas crime is a concern, and schools are failing.

But if you live here, can you really imagine living anywhere else? The cost of living, the kindness of our community, the green spaces, the economic opportunity — it’s a great place to live. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s our home. I am a second generation Kansas Citian and I love this city. I know that I don’t make sense anywhere else. This is how most refugees feel. I’ve spoken to refugees who tell me about beautiful beaches, vibrant communities and deep connections to their homes.

I’ve worked with refugees who have had their lives threatened by vigilante groups, religious extremists and corrupt police officers. They suffer this violence and indignity because of who they are and what they believe in. They avail themselves to their governments for protection, and often that exacerbated their problems. Despite all of this, they still refused to leave their country until they had to escape danger.

Although overwhelmingly grateful to the communities offering sanctuary, they feel a deep sense of pride and responsibility for their homeland. Most didn’t want to leave their homes. They had to.

When we think about refugees, we need to understand why they are leaving their countries. While every refugee’s reason for fleeing his country is unique, every decision is the last resort. Their homes have been torn apart by war, corruption and instability.

Some may have survived sexual assault, physical abuse or watched their family and friends be murdered. Often they were targeted for refusing to fight, refusing to pay a war tax, refusing to hand over their property, refusing to be silent.

For the lucky few who relocate abroad, they endure long months of background checks and medical exams. Their lives are in flux and often they are unable to work or have permanent housing while their applications slowly process. If they are given the opportunity to start a new life in a new country it is unlikely that they will be able to speak their own language, eat their traditional foods or work in their trade.

Refugees face an overwhelming task of integrating into a foreign land. We need to be respectful of them and the impossible decisions they have had to make for themselves and their families.

Before we get back in the fray of the immigration debate, we need to take a moment to appreciate what it takes for refugees to risk their lives to come to the U.S.

Whatever your opinion about refugees, take a moment to imagine what it would feel like if you had to flee Kansas City.

Valerie Sprout of Shawnee is an immigration attorney focusing on family-based and humanitarian cases. Reach her at oped@kcstar.com.

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