Opinions

Message to refugees, immigrants: You're welcome in Alaska

After about an hour-long interview, we asked our final question: "What makes you feel welcome here, in Anchorage?" The interviewee, a Somali refugee who has lived in Anchorage for less than five years, said: "The people. The people are very welcoming and friendly."

These words from one of our research participants came to mind this weekend as we read about Mohammed Hano and Mobarak Albadawi, Darfuri refugees whose cars were vandalized with messages like "go home," "leave Alaska," and "you're not welcome here." These words again came to mind when we read that the Anchorage Police Department (APD) refused to send an officer to investigate the "vandalism incident." And the words came to mind once more as we read piercingly negative comments to the Alaska Dispatch News' coverage of the crime, such as, "I would love to know how much they (the refugees) are profiting from all the donations ...," and, "They come from a land of genocidal maniacs … but they are frightened by some paint from vandals … this is a simple minded hoax …," and, "this is an incredibly minor crime … there's zero evidence of a hate crime."

As generally optimistic people, we choose to believe this crime was an isolated incident representing a minority perspective in our community. But the crime also unearthed public comments on refugees (and immigrants in general) that reflect: (1) a widespread ignorance about the refugee resettlement process; (2) a lack of understanding about the impact of discrimination on health and well-being; and (3) confusion over the definition of a hate crime, which is related to APD's inaction.

These misunderstandings are crucial and harmful, so let's try to clarify them here.

Refugees and the resettlement process

A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion, and is unable to safely return to their country of origin. Today, more than 1,200 refugees live in Alaska from countries across the globe, including Russia, Laos, Bhutan, Burma, Sudan, Cuba, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq.

Some Alaskans seem to believe that refugees are welcomed with heaps of social services and monetary support. The reality, however, is that refugees must sign a promissory note before stepping foot on the tarmac to the U.S., pledging to repay their travel costs.Once in the U.S., refugees receive eight months of cash assistance -- which in Alaska adds up to approximately $500 a month -- and eight months of refugee health care. Data shows that 92 percent of refugees are employed within six months of resettlement, and approximately 90 percent of refugee families no longer rely on public assistance by the end of their first year in Alaska. Despite this one indicator of "success," however, it is undeniable that refugees still face many hardships as they adjust to their lives in the U.S. while also being psychologically haunted by their past.

Refugees come to the U.S. seeking refuge from the adverse experiences that drove them from their country of origin. Research shows that refugees are exposed to highly stressful life experiences such as political violence, deaths, forced separation from family members, and physical and sexual violence at very high rates. And once in the U.S., refugees are faced with acculturation stressors, like persistent difficulty communicating their needs due to language and cultural barriers.

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So although they are strong and resilient, refugees are survivors of various forms of trauma and persecution. Thus, vandalism and other threats against them can re-instill fear and insecurity among our refugee community, possibly even re-traumatizing them. Refugees are resettled in Alaska to escape violence, to live in peace. Just like all other residents of Alaska, refugees have a right to feel welcome, secure and protected in their new home.

Discrimination (ethnic or otherwise) hurts

It should now be clear that refugees do not come to the U.S. by choice and then are given abundant support, contrary to popular myths. And given the "vandalism incident," it should now also be clear that they are certainly not always welcomed with open arms. We need to be aware that discrimination (ethnic or otherwise) is related to a number of adverse outcomes such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental distress. Research supports this, and this is also clearly seen when the victims expressed concern that "Any moment from now, something could happen to me."

Research also shows that prejudice and discrimination are additional barriers that many immigrants and refugees face on a daily basis, barriers that have further negative effects on their psychological well-being, physical health, life satisfaction, quality of life and socioeconomic predictors such as school performance and job aspirations. People are more likely to be discouraged from going to school, finishing school, searching for a job, going to a job, seeking medical help, seeking psychological help and doing other important quality of life activities when more barriers are laid out in front of them. Research suggests that people's aspirations and life goals, as well as trust in the general community (including police), are negatively affected by these additional barriers.

So discrimination based on social group membership has many serious negative consequences, which is why we have federal laws against it, including hate crime laws. Unfortunately, for some unclear reason, the APD insists that "the vandalism doesn't fit the definition of a hate crime."

Police inaction reflects systemic bias

The "vandalism incident" in Anchorage seems to fit the U.S. Department of Justice's definition of hate crime, which is "intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful."

Similarly, the incident also seems to fit the Federal Bureau of Investigation's definition of hate crime, which is "a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."

So APD's and many Alaskans' insistence that this isn't a hate crime is perplexing, and essentially turns an ugly discriminatory act that is rooted in individual-level prejudice into a glaring example of systemic oppression.Although Alaska does not have hate crime laws, and perhaps this is partly why APD could not do anything, APD should have at least acknowledged this, clarified it, and referred it to the local FBI office for them to look into, instead of simply minimizing the incident and disregarding the very real fear and threat that the victims are feeling. This terrorizing act of discrimination hurts, and it is wrong, but APD just protected it, and many Alaskans are reinforced for denying it.

Instead of protecting the victims of hate, APD's decision to completely shove away the possibility of a hate crime inadvertently? protected the perpetrators of hate and, in essence, promoted the message that there are no consequences to hating, terrorizing and threatening people simply because they may have been born somewhere else, have different physical traits or believe in a different god. It sends a message to the perpetrators and the community that this is allowable and that such shameful acts will go unpunished. It can ignite anti-immigrant sentiment in the community. It tells victims they won't be protected, which, research suggests, may discourage them from seeking help or protection in the future.

Yes, this may be reflective of the systemic problem that the Anchorage police force is overworked and understaffed. But it's also reflective of the fact that systemic problems tend to disproportionately affect those who are racially, ethnically, culturally, sexually or religiously outside the "norm." This is systemic bias.

Community action

As clinical-community psychologists in Alaska who have conducted years of research on refugee resettlement and the immigration experience, we have never heard a refugee or immigrant say that discrimination helped them persevere and succeed. Instead, safety, security and community support are consistently noted as facilitators of resilience and successful adaptation. So, despite many of our fellow Alaskans' denial and reluctance to see this as what it is – a crime driven by hate – we are encouraged to see that there are way more Alaskans who are sending welcoming messages of safety, security and love to our refugee and immigrant communities.

To continue our efforts of combating messages of hate and ignorance with messages of love, acceptance and support, we strongly encourage everyone to join us at the #WeAreAnchorage event "Restoring Honor: A Community Potluck Welcoming All Immigrants to Alaska" at the Northway Mall this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.

As a community, let's show our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters that not only are they welcome here but that their voices and realities are heard and valued. We see you. We hear you. We appreciate you.

Rebecca Volino Robinson, Ph.D., and E.J.R. David, Ph.D., are both psychology faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Robinson has been collaborating with the local refugee community for several years, and she has a long-standing partnership with the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services. David's research is focused on the experiences of marginalized groups, and he is a board member of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project.

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Rebecca Robinson

Rebecca Volino Robinson is on the psychology faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has collaborated with the local refugee community for many years. She also works in partnership with Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services. 

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