Skittles and Fish

Some things stay the same. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. Even though time does the only thing it can, never stopping, always marching on, some things stay the same. In March, I wrote about refugees having become such a hot issue in the furious clamor of our presidential campaign. We have since gone from a fractious and divisive campaign to… well, to… to now. Little has changed.

“… closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. “

In Bulgaria, near the Turkish border on the ragged fringe of the desperate struggle toward Europe, refugee camps are anything but peaceful or hopeful. “Police in Bulgaria have fired tear gas and water cannon at refugees protesting about restrictions on their movement after authorities barred them from leaving the area where they stay pending medical checks.” 1 The article goes on to say that “some 13,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are currently trapped in the European Union’s poorest country.” Increasingly, Bulgarians are feeling threatened by the presence of refugees in their country. After the riots at the camp, the UN has urged Bulgaria to “improve living conditions… and establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers.” 2

In Germany and other Western European countries, after so famously accepting anyone and everyone for refuge, pressure and tensions are mounting, and accusations escalate. And here in America, in Minnesota, even after the US picks out the best bets by screening refugees while they live in refugee camps for years, some Somali refugee student, no, psychopath, no, radical terrorist, no, I don’t know, (damn, without a label how do I know what to believe about him?) swerves into a crowd and starts attacking people with a knife. The President-elect had an immediate answer, via Twitter, that the guy “should not have been in this country.”

GhotiA poisoned Skittle, that’s the argument. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. An interesting Forbes article makes the case that, given a sufficiently large bowl, poisoned Skittles are safer than seafood. “The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk.” (Go ahead and read that article. I’ll wait… Oh, all right, here’s the recap. 16.8 billion seafood meals a year, making 589,310 people sick: each meal presents a 0.0035% chance of getting sick.) If you like seafood, you accept the risk. Same concept for traveling: the benefits, for most people, so far outweigh the risk that they travel without dwelling on all the things that could go wrong and result in the worst outcome, which is usually something involving a smoldering tangle of metal and billowing plumes of thick black smoke. I like to travel. Every conceivable action that offers a benefit carries a risk. What to do? We deal with it.

Deal with it. We deal with risk every day, for the good that comes from our decisions.

In Colorado alone, we accept 2,000 refugees a year. That’s more than the per-state average, since the U.S. has taken in about 70,000 a year since 2013 (more before then, with a peak of twice that in 1993). 3 If you don’t want to go to the article, there’s a recap down below in the footnotes. 4 I bring up Colorado because that’s where I live, and because I have a personal interest in the quality of life here. Remember now, these are people who are fleeing from war — real war — and it is with the spirit of the Statue of Liberty that we want to help them. That is the benefit: to be human, to live in consonance with high ideals and a spirit of charity and love (sometimes gratuitously called “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” ideals, charity and love). It’s the same reason we have charities and nonprofits, churches, veterans’ groups and government social services: to help those who need it. For a better quality of life for all.

I do a little work with refugees and asylum seekers in Denver. I have met people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burma, Nepal, Cuba, Congo-Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yes, Syria. These are people who fled with or without their families from terrorism, war, torture, bombs, gunfire, rocket attacks. Some were threatened with death, or had relatives killed, for cooperating with the U.S. Most have been stuck in refugee camps for two years or more, some as long as 18 years. In my mind I have run two scenarios for how they are treated and how it affects the way they will integrate into our society and contribute positively to it. One is to isolate them and keep them apart from the rest of us, in hopes that they will not be a danger to our schools and communities. Scowl at them in the grocery store, spray-paint messages on their doors, throw rocks. What the heck, tear gas and water cannons. The second way (you might guess) is to see that they learn our language and get job training so they can start working their way to a useful and rewarding life. I’ve thought about which way will make them better neighbors.

It’s kind of like being careful what fish you eat, and how they’re prepared. If I’m going to eat seafood, after all, I want it to be good.


  1. Al Jazeera, Bulgaria: Refugee protests over treatment turn violent, 24 November 2016
  2. UN News Centre, Bulgaria: UN concerned at calls for expulsions following tensions at overcrowded reception centre, 29 November 2016
  3. The Wall Street Journal, How Many Refugees the U.S. Takes In and Where They Go, Nov 24, 2015
  4. The number of refugees accepted, which is set annually by the president, reached a peak of 142,000 during the Balkan wars in 1993. It was 80,000 between 2008 and 2011, dropped to 76,000 in 2012 and has been at 70,000 since 2013. This fiscal year, the U.S. plans to accept 85,000, including 10,000 Syrians. WSJ, Nov 24, 2015

8 thoughts on “Skittles and Fish

  1. Bruce, thank you for caring for these refugees. I belong to the Interfaith Council of Murrieta and Temecula Valley, and recently we had a drive for supplies to be sent down to San Diego, where there are 1,000 Syrian refugees trying to establish homes. They need many supplies, and now that our area has sent so much, they now need money to set up their lives. They spent four years in Jordan, getting vetted to come to the U.S., and now they are required to learn English, get a job and be self-sustaining in three months! Imagine! They also need our prayers. Thank you, Bruce, for caring.

    • And thank you, Marti, for your lifelong devotion to goodness, charity and understanding. It shows in everything you do and I’m sure the Interfaith Council is the richer for it. The three-month R&P time frame is a challenge, isn’t it? Widespread community support, much more than the government programs that get the refugees started on their path to integration, is essential.

  2. As they say, Bruce, “From your lips to God’s ears.” There is some research evidence that empathy is an ability that is not evenly distributed in populations (cf. Howard Gardner’s book, Frames of Mind”), nor is a preference for diversity (I’d have to dig up my favorite reference on this, but it came from the “Oxford Encyclopedia of the Child”). So there are many people for whom the prospect of taking in more refugees is a fearful one. I want to have compassion for these fears but to keep trying to make the case for openness and inclusion, remembering that some Americans did that for my Swedish grandparents over a hundred years ago.

    • Wow, that’s bringing it right home, thanks to kindnesses shown to your grandparents. Recognizing empathy and related qualities as abilities, and knowing that abilities by nature vary, explains why we see such a wide variance in reactions to refugee resettlement. But abilities can be taught, so therein I can see hope. We have to, don’t we? Thank you for your comments.

  3. One of the very clear findings from my research on the Peace Corps Bulgaria program was that it worked very well in helping people see the human in what they were once told was their enemy (Bulgaria and the U.S., were on opposite sides of the Cold War). This was largely accomplished through the 3 month family-home-stay training and then the placement of the volunteer with a local organization for 2 years which embedded the volunteer within a groups of friendly colleague(s). This allowed them to learn the language, to understand the local customs, to contribute and yes, after 2 years some volunteers had created networks that allowed them to stay and pursue careers in the country. The emphasis on cross-cultural leaning allowed them and their counterparts to work through their fears of the other. The integration of refugees is more complicated for a variety of reason, especially when they come with their whole families but there must be a way to apply the Peace Corps model to refugee incorporation. Refugees come with many talents and being introduced to those through a volunteer interaction can ease the fear that they are here to bring harm.

    • Good observation, making a connection hadn’t considered. This evening I was talking with someone who moved to Denver from Chicago a few years ago. In Chicago they were connected with a resettlement agency that placed new arrivals with host families, and they were one. They had hosted 18 or so refugee families for a few weeks each, cushioning the process. Seems like an attractive approach. I don’t know if they still do that there, but here in Denver the new arrivals are set up in an apartment or house right away. They are paired with someone as a “first friend” if they don’t have a contact from their home country, and helped with using the stove, getting groceries, finding their way around the neighborhood and so on. They start ESL within a few days, and cultural and job training in short order as well. As Marti noted in her comment there is a 90-day initial “Reception & Placement” program with some pretty firm goals coinciding with a set budget for that 90-day period. Follow-on training and support continues, with a 5-year coverage period for some aspects as needed, e.g. ESL.

      Coincidentally, today I received an email from the National Peace Corps Association that indicated they’re on it, pretty much as you suggested. Here is a link to their info: Peace Corps Community in Support of Refugees. Their charter: “Through this Peace Corps community group, we aim to engage the broader RPCV community in the national and international support of Refugees. It is doing so with the firm conviction that returned Peace Corps volunteers, by virtue of their training and experience, have the cross-cultural skills, adaptability, and commitment to make a significant contribution in this global humanitarian effort.” They are working with two of the official resettlement agencies, not (yet) with the one in Denver.

    • Thank you, John. If the world were as simple as I like to see it, we wouldn’t have such interesting topics to think about, would we? Not to mention trying to do something about, each in our own way.

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