Resisting the Narrative of Fear against Refugees

M. Jan Holton—

Fear is a daily course in the life of refugees fleeing from war. Consider for example the citizens of Aleppo facing bombings, torture, starvation, and death. The title of a New York Times article about the final days before the fall of Aleppo says it all “We are dead either way”.  For most of us it would take a rather extraordinary circumstance to make us suddenly walk away from all that we have and everything familiar to us. And so it is for refugees around the world, approximately 5 million from Syria alone, whose journeys are almost always long, dangerous, and filled with uncertainty.

The tragic events of 9/11 made us startlingly aware of our vulnerability as a nation and as individuals. It left a mark on us and we have yet to recover. That September morning ushered in a new age of fear for citizens across the United States—and Europe. We have named that fear terrorism and given it the face of our Muslim neighbors. That fear has become our absolute enemy.

When I meet refugees fresh off the plane arriving to resettle in the United States I am struck by the overwhelming mixture of emotion I see in their eyes. I often see fear there but equal parts excitement as well. Families want to feel relieved but do not know who is meeting them or where they are going to live. They worry about loved ones left behind. Some families, unsure what the future will hold, bring dishes, cooking pots, and even food packed in suitcases. They do not know that agencies in states like Connecticut have stocked adequate food in the refrigerator and furnished an apartment in preparation for their arrival.

Contrary to some claims, refugees arriving in the United States for resettlement are not foreigners about whom we know nothing. Each refugee undergoes a series of rigorous background checks conducted by the Department of State and lasting eighteen to twenty-four months. They check the watch list and work with U.S. law enforcement, the intelligence agencies, the National Counterterrorism Center, Refugee Affairs (a special screening for Syrian refugees), the Fraud Detection Agency. They conduct personal interviews by trained personnel. They also run fingerprints through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Department of Defense (DOD), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). (See this helpful graphic) Newly resettled Syrian refugees in Connecticut, for example, give first-hand accounts of the long interviews and add that they were often repeated over several months time.

In spite of these many screenings, popular political rhetoric would have us believe that refugees, specifically Muslim refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, are a particular threat to our national security.

It is no great surprise that fear, which makes us feel vulnerable, is also a source of great power for those who wield it.  One who tortures almost exclusively counts on fear instilled by repeated violence, humiliation, pain, and suffering to gain control over a victim.  Despots and demagogues, rebels and armies, and mediocre politicians all know that fear yields power– they count on it.

Political sociologist Didier Bigo and others propose the term “management of unease” to describe the crafting of political power from a narrative constructed around national insecurity and fear. Politicians, he suggests, use fear—usually focused on the foreigner, especially the refugee or migrant—to gain power that has been lost elsewhere. Make no mistake the management of unease does not strive to mitigate fear. Rather, it is the managing or manipulating of fear and unease to the benefit of the one who seeks power. It stokes fear in order to further a political agenda.

Fear of annihilation, death in whatever form we may meet with it, has always been an integral part of human suffering. Religion—theologians and philosophers in tow—have long struggled with questions about human suffering and its underlying fear. The very fact that we humans will die and know that we will die can cause us to behave in very unhelpful ways. For the most part, though, we keep these fears and anxieties below the surface of consciousness so that we can go about our daily lives. Terrorism brings the reality of death front and center. Its arbitrary nature heightens underlying anxieties making us easy prey to politicians and others waiting to convince us that we need their protection. The Courage to Be by theologian Paul Tillich is a helpful resource for Christians asking questions about our finitude and the ensuing anxiety that undergirds all that we do. Tillich calls for a type of courage only found when we root ourselves in the spiritual ground of being from which we come. Many of us would name that to be God. It is both strikingly more complex than this statement and yet utterly this simple.

Refugees do not always find welcoming kindness when they reach the lands of abundance and safety in the United States, Europe, and Australia. Political narratives of insecurity are increasing and newly arrived refugees-suitcases in tow-are increasingly at risk in their land of refuge. Citizens are left with choices of how to respond to these narratives—when to be cautious and when to exhibit a moral courage to advocate for refugees at home and around the globe who need our help now more than ever.


M. Jan Holton served on the faculty at Yale Divinity School in the area of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. She is the author of Building the Resilient Community: Lessons from the Lost Boys of Sudan, a study that focuses on field research in South Sudan.


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