A few weeks ago, I stood outside the Knights Inn to welcome the asylum seekers to our county. I’ll be honest with you, as human nature has it, even for me—someone who fiercely defends …
A few weeks ago, I stood outside the Knights Inn to welcome the asylum seekers to our county. I’ll be honest with you, as human nature has it, even for me—someone who fiercely defends human rights for all—my first thoughts were not ones of welcome, but rather ones of personal concerns.
I’ve spent the last few years addressing issues of housing insecurity in the county and I was having trouble getting past my concern for our current residents. How are we to house more?
Perhaps the question is, if this problem has existed for years, why are we still unable to provide affordable housing for our residents? Why are we unable to house residents, even though a good deal of housing is being currently erected?
That evening, at the Knights Inn, as we awaited the asylum seekers’ arrival, emotions were buzzing. I had earnest conversations with county citizens, “protestors,” that shed light on many concerns.
Were the protesters wrong to be worried?
One gentleman expressed his anger and, maybe, fear at “these” folks coming here illegally and taking opportunities and housing away from our own citizens, our neighbors.
We talked as the buses parked and the mostly young men discussed whether they wanted to disembark. They had been shuffled around for many days and were “misinformed” about where they would be staying. The Knights Inn looked nothing like the accommodations on the glossy paper they held in their hands—not to mention the distance from accessible transportation and where they would be required to go to conduct their interviews for asylum. Protestors expressed that these conditions were a similar concern for our own current citizens; they too were shocked at the location chosen to house the asylum seekers.
After a lengthy conversation with the protestor, an “old neighbor” now, we both agreed that it was not these young men who frustrated people, but our government. The frustration was not aimed at a specific party—the Democrats or Republicans—but more an overall feeling that both political parties are ignoring the general public. A feeling pervaded that our dignity to provide for ourselves, as citizens, was not being met. We agreed that if “we” were humanely accommodated, then our feelings about what would become of our “new” neighbors would likely be very different.
Like welcoming a distant cousin, none of us knew who these men, deliberating disembarkment, would be. But I was aware that it typically takes some desperate conditions for a person to want to leave their family for unsafe, uncertain circumstances, like the ones they had met up to now. I recognized that each one of them is someone’s son, brother, friend, neighbor, father and/or husband/partner. I saw my family, friends and “old” neighbors in them.
I went to the Inn to assist these new neighbors, filled with the same compassion I have for any member of our county, and I was faced with the dilemma of the under-resourced status our county holds to accommodate them. I think many good citizens are facing a similar dilemma—how does one feel both enraged about the injustice of one’s own position, while simultaneously feeling compassion for others, one perceives to be a threat to one’s own status?
I spent many hours at the Inn over the next four days and had beautiful conversations with many grateful, intelligent and polite migrant people. Through conversation and interactions, it was impossible for me to ignore our similarities. The decision to bring these asylum seekers to Sullivan County was made for them. They did not ask to be off-loaded here.
While working with many eager agencies to collectively assist the seekers’ immediate needs, my thoughts lay with how we can harness the energy around the newness of their arrival to improve our collective lot, so we all stand to benefit.
We all deserve safe, clean, uncongested housing. From listening to many of the protestors, one of the real issues of concern expressed is why is large-scale development—sardine-packed, three-story housing, labeled “traditional”—that stands to create congestion, environmental issues and alter the bucolic feel of this rural area, occurring?
Even worse, many people ask me why the rapid housing development in the county does not benefit or provide equal opportunity and access to the general long-standing public, whose housing issues have never been addressed. This allowance only seems to create division amongst us.
How might we foster true neighborhoods for all and encourage more responsible and compassionate behavior as neighbors?
Asylum seekers are here legally and have passed through security and background checks. Once employed, they typically pay as much in taxes as they receive in benefits. Asylees anywhere have the right to go to the border or “port of entry” of a country (as many of our ancestors have done before us) and prove their fear of persecution.
This is what these individuals seek to do as well.
Adrienne Jensen is the former executive director of the Sullivan County Office of Human Rights, organizer of the Sullivan County Housing Coalition and a Sullivan County Youth Action Council board member.
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