How We Decide Who Is 'Worthy of Welcome' : Code Switch Millions of Syrians have been displaced by ongoing civil war. In her new book, Refuge, Heba Gowayed follows Syrians who have resettled in the U.S., Canada and Germany. She argues that finding their footing in their new homes is less about individual choice and more about governmental systems.

How We Decide Who Is 'Worthy of Welcome'

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What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.


DEMBY: So we want to start this week's episode with the story of a man named Zafir. He's this gregarious dude in his thirties. He lives in New Haven, Conn. And New Haven was the final stop for his family after this long, arduous escape from the ongoing war in Syria. And Zafir is one of the lucky few - like, very few - who was given refugee status in the United States. The agency that was helping his family resettle in the United States actually helped him find a job.

HEBA GOWAYED: At, like, one of these craft butcher places in Connecticut, right? Think, you know, wax paper, etc. - this sort of fancy butcher place.

DEMBY: That's Heba Gowayed. She spent a lot of time with Zafir in her work as a sociologist. And Heba says Zafir was a butcher back in Syria before the war. So he was one of the rare resettled people working in the same field as he did in his old life. He and his wife had five kids. And Zafir landed this good job. It paid pretty good money, better than the pay at the places most people seeking asylum get. The bosses liked him. He liked them. He could see a future working there. Granted, you know, at this bougie Connecticut butcher shop, he was in the back washing the dishes.

GOWAYED: They couldn't put him on the actual butcher stand because he didn't speak English. But they promised him, listen, if you really work hard and you learn English, we'd be happy to move you there.

DEMBY: Now, Zafir actually lived a few towns away from this job.

GOWAYED: So he'd have to take a train. He'd have to take a series of buses. He'd have to walk a bunch. So it really took him about an hour and a half to get there every morning.

DEMBY: And that was on a good day. But he still had life stuff to deal with. Like, Zafir's daughter - she's deaf. She had to get a cochlear implant, so when the time came to get it for her, he had to miss work. Then not too long after that, Zafir's father-in-law died suddenly. He had been watching a YouTube video...

GOWAYED: ...A YouTube video of his house being destroyed in Syria.

DEMBY: After watching that video, he had a heart attack. So Zafir took some time off to be with his wife and his family.

GOWAYED: But he didn't take much time. You know, we're talking about two or three days off each time.

DEMBY: So one morning Zafir is heading back into work as the remnants of a tropical storm bear down on Connecticut. So the weather is trash.

GOWAYED: And it's just - it's pouring. It's cold. There's ice rain. He doesn't really have a good coat.

DEMBY: He gets to the bus station to catch his buses.

GOWAYED: Bus is canceled.

DEMBY: So he has to walk all the way to the train station that the bus was supposed to take him to in this horrible weather. And he finally gets to the train station.

GOWAYED: And the train is delayed. And so he looks at his watch, and he's like, man, I'm going to be, like, three hours late for this job. So he makes a phone call to the store.

DEMBY: He talks to one of the people there who speaks some Arabic, and he says to them...

GOWAYED: ...Listen, I'm late. I'm 3 hours delayed. I'm not going to be able to make it in today at any reasonable time. I'm sorry.

DEMBY: And that was the last straw.

GOWAYED: So he gets fired from his job on that day.

DEMBY: Zafir had been through so much. And now he's jobless with an empty fridge, a wife, five kids. He'd lost the shaky foothold that he had established for himself in this country. For their part, the folks at his resettlement agency - you know, people who are supposed to be his advocates - agree with Zafir's managers at the butcher shop. They were not going to help Zafir get welfare benefits or find a new job because he just got fired from his old job. They were like, what kind of message would it send to other refugees that they could just call out because of a little rain? And so now Zafir has to contend with the American welfare system where people can't get welfare benefits if they're not working or looking for work. And the people who might have otherwise vouched for him at the resettlement agency said they weren't going to do that.

GOWAYED: This is the domino effect in American welfare policy.


GOWAYED: I'm not saying anything new because at the end of the day, we think that we've abandoned this idea of the culture of poverty. We think that, you know, we no longer think of low-income people as, you know, causing their own poverty, as being the reason why they're continuing to struggle, right? But all of our policies are structured in that way. So our welfare policy is structured around the idea that low-income people need to be incentivized to work, right? You know, the way that our salary systems are structured is that, oh, it's OK that we make people work two or three jobs. That's their responsibility. They're the ones who have to work their way out of poverty. And we lack the safety net. We lack the structures that actually allow people upward mobility. When you bring these refugees in - people who are middle class in their country, right? - and you put them in the same system - guess what, Gene? - they have the same experience.

DEMBY: Heba spoke to Zafir as part of the research for her recent book called "Refuge: How The State Shapes Human Potential."

GOWAYED: And it's about Syrians who are on the move from Syria to countries that they think will offer them refuge or that promise to offer them refuge and about their journeys and whether or not that refuge is achieved and what it looks like.

DEMBY: For her book, she followed Syrians seeking refuge in the United States like Zafir, but also people trying to do so north of the border in Canada and in Germany. And she says that the racial politics of each of these countries shapes both who was allowed to resettle and the way the social safety nets available to them work or don't work when they arrive. All of that, in turn, informs the way that refugees like Zafir experience race in their new homes and as minorities for the first time. I started out by asking Heba why she chose these three places - the U.S., Canada and Germany.

GOWAYED: So one reason is that the United States and Canada have long led on resettlement, so they're the countries that are taking in the most numbers through resettlement. And Germany had really stepped up when it came to the asylum offered to Syrians particularly. So Germany does not have a history of being a welcoming place. But in 2015, Angela Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation, which would have otherwise kept folks at the periphery of the European Union, and, as a result, admitted about half a million people in. But the second reason - and this is what your, you know, the - baked into the question - is that our welfare systems globally reflect who we perceive as belonging and what we perceive that belonging to look like. And, you know, for those of us in the United States, it's easy to recognize that that notion of belonging and that those resources often are structured by race. They're structured by who we deem as part of the national polity, who we deem as us, and who we decide is actually a part of them. And our welfare systems - whether it be in the United States, Canada or Germany - are structured around that notion.

And so in the United States, you have a history of anti-Black racism that's completely devastated the welfare system. I mean, we can see this in the 1996 welfare reforms. And as a result, we have this idea that in the United States, if you're poor, it's your fault, and in order to work out of poverty, you need to sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right? Now, we know that working in the United States as a low-income person doesn't mean that you get that upward mobility, right? We know that we're denied a living wage. But the thing is, is that when we think about refugee policy, it derives from that same well. We treat refugees in the same way that we treat low-income people. So as a result, for instance, folks board a flight in Jordan as humanitarian refugees. But in the process of a transatlantic flight, they become treated as American workers and American low-income workers. And that is a huge disjuncture in people's lives.


DEMBY: You follow around a few families who settle in the U.S. Most of them put down roots in New Haven, Conn. I'm really curious about one of those married couples you spent time with - Ahmed and Faten.

GOWAYED: So the day I met Faten and Ahmed, the first time I met Faten and Ahmed, it was outside of Sports Haven, which is an off-track betting facility at the edge of town in New Haven, like, a really seedy place. Highly recommend if you're in New Haven to just go check it out.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

GOWAYED: But - or not. But they get out of the car, and I'm sort of watching them with their child and their bags, you know, fumble to sort of get into my car and into the resettlement agency staff's car. And as I watch them, I know that it's on me, that I have been the designated person to explain to them why they're in New Haven, Conn. So to back up, the way that resettlement works in the United States - like, the way that you get put in one place or another - is through a lottery that happens in D.C., and resettlement agencies say, I could take this number of people. I could take folks with these kinds of, you know, chronic issues, with these kinds of health issues, and you match - right? - you know, what the needs are with people, with the abilities of the resettlement agencies. And they were actually slotted to go to a resettlement agency in Indiana. However, a week before they arrived, the Bataclan attacks in France had happened.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: The breaking news out of Paris in what at least at this moment looks to be a city under terror attack...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: In the confusion, there appear to be four separate incidents.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: ...Associated Press reported there have been two suicide attacks and one bombing outside a soccer stadium.

GOWAYED: At the time, because these attacks had happened and because people had blamed it on Syrian refugees - because remember, in 2015 was when all of those people had arrived in Europe, so there was a manufactured backlash against this group of people - the governors all across the country decided that they were going to close their states to Syrian refugees.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #3: Some American politicians are asking if suicide bombers could be posing as refugees...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #4: At least 15 governors have said they will try to keep Syrian refugees out of their state.

GOWAYED: And one of those governors - who was the governor of Indiana?

DEMBY: It was Mike Pence.

GOWAYED: Pop quiz, guys.

DEMBY: Mike Pence.

GOWAYED: Mike - no - none other than Mike Pence, right? And so Ahmed and Faten were redirected. I had to explain, you know?

DEMBY: So they had no idea.

GOWAYED: Yeah. And Faten turned around, and I said, well, you know, a couple of days ago, there was a terrorist attack. And she's like, what? Now, she was packing, right? She was moving her house. She was visiting her family. She had no idea that that attack was happening. And so she was like, wait, what happened? And so I told her, and she's like, oh, that's really sad. And I was like, yeah. And she's like, so what does it have to do with us, though? And so I was like, well, you know, they blamed it on Syrian refugees, so then they had this, you know, reaction here, and she just could not wrap her mind around it. And she was really upset, you know? It just made her so sad because - she said, you know, so why did they bring us here if this is what they think of us, you know, if this is how they treat us? And it was really a moment of her recognizing how - what the system was here and how she was going to be cast as an Arab and Muslim woman in the United States.

DEMBY: And there's another anecdote in this same chapter in which you're at the Social Services office, and she looks at this Black man's - elderly Black man in a wheelchair. Was that her who made that...

GOWAYED: No, that was Rajaa.


GOWAYED: And Rajaa is really interesting because Rajaa is somebody who - she's just one of these exceptional people who is just really introspective and really empathetic. And so, you know, for her, she recognized early on - so she lived, when she first got to the United States, in Fair Haven, which is a predominantly - you know, it's a low-income neighborhood and - in New Haven - and predominantly Black and brown. And she recognized very quickly how her neighbors were being treated, you know, in the stores that she was frequenting. And she was the one who said to me, we're new here, but what about this man, pointing to a Black man in a wheelchair at the Department of Social Services? You know, why is he here? Why does he have to wait with me to get assistance, right? What is this country doing for him?

And that Department of Social Services office is, really, at the core of this story because, you know, it, again - and I've said this before, but it bears repeating, you know? In the United States, we have a policy of devaluing - of dehumanizing folks who need support. And because of the systems that we have in place - right? - because our schools are stratified, because our neighborhoods are stratified, because our health services are stratified, those people who need support tend to be Black and brown people. And so, you know, when we think about whether or not refugees come here and find refuge and find reprieve, you know, the Department of Social Services tells a different story about what that reprieve actually ends up looking like.

DEMBY: One of the Syrian men that you speak to who's sort of lamenting all of the hoops they have to jump through to get things - like housing and employment and access to health care - says to you, quote, "in my country, we work and we live. Here - here meaning the United States - living is a math problem." What did he mean by that?

GOWAYED: OK. So if you're poor in the United States - right? - and you have the luck of getting TANF, which is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is our welfare system...

DEMBY: Or welfare.

GOWAYED: Yeah, our welfare system. So you get TANF. I can't remember the exact numbers right now. But I think it's like, for a family of five, it was $805 a month when I was doing my research. But if you make a dollar over whatever that TANF cutoff is, which is the federal poverty line, you lose the entire benefit. But at the same time, the EITC, which is the earned income tax credit, which is a tax subsidy that goes on top of our taxes for low-income families - and that corresponds to the number of children you have. In order to get that, you do have to be employed formally on the books.

DEMBY: So you have to work enough to get the EITC, but not work enough that it, basically, kicks you out of welfare?

GOWAYED: Exactly. Exactly. So you can see how this turns into an algebra problem - right? - where, at the end, whatever that sum is better feed your family. And so you've got, you know, this equation that's almost impossible to manage where you got to earn enough on the books to get EITC. You got to earn, you know, little enough on the books to get TANF. And at the end, you have to figure out how to pay your rent, how to feed your kids, you know, how to deal with incidentals. And also - and this is really important - how to continue to support your family members back home, whose lives continue to be threatened, right? You are their lifeline.

DEMBY: And one of the big dilemmas in that math problem was not just finding work, but these ideas around who was supposed to work, these sort of gendered ideas around who's supposed to work. And, of course, that is shaped by our domestic policy in the United States, too. One of the sort of really fascinating tensions in the families, particularly among the couples that you followed, was whether the women - the adult women in the family - would work. So why was that question so fraught?

GOWAYED: Yeah. So you know, these families were middle-class couples in Syria. And as middle-class couples - right? - the men owned, like, small businesses, you know? And the women took care of the house. They took care of their kids. They spent time with other women. And they - you know, they had - that was the lifestyle that they had led in Syria. That was the lifestyle their parents had led in Syria. And now there were some exceptions, right? But for the most part, this was sort of the division of labor in the household. Now, they come to the United States and they confront the system. They confront this math problem. And they confront the need, the immediate need, to work. So to - back up to the self-sufficiency policy again. The way that that works is that you get welcome money, which is a one-time payment of $975 per refugee, which is quickly spent, right? That money is gone. You know, if you pay a security deposit...


GOWAYED: ...One month rent and, you know, and a bus ticket, that money is gone.

DEMBY: It's done.

GOWAYED: And so the only regular assistance you have at that point is this welfare money, right? And that's not enough to pay rent. And so somebody had to work. And the men, who had always worked, were like, OK - I guess I have to enter the labor market. Now, despite the fact that these men were skilled, right - you know, we've got - I've got blacksmiths. I've got electricians. I've got, you know, people who were chefs, you know, people who were restaurant owners. In the United States, you know, they don't have the language. They don't have credentials. They're not highly educated, you know? They can't really - they don't have papers to show, you know, what they can do. And as a result, they end up working jobs in the backs of restaurants, you know, bar backs, dishwashers, gas station attendants, janitors. And while those jobs are, you know, not bad in the moral sense, obviously, right? They're jobs that a lot of folks work. They're jobs in the United States that are designed to not offer a living wage, right? They're jobs that you have to work two and three of to make ends meet, which is another aspect of the math problem that all low-income Americans can relate to.


GOWAYED: And so, you know, because you need these multiple jobs, because you need these multiple sources of income to make ends meet, that the women would have to help the men - right? - in the ways that they know how with the skills that they have at their disposal. And so what you see is that these gender relationships in the household shift around American poverty. This is not a story of gender empowerment, right? This is not a story of, oh, look; the women came to the United States and they found employment, so they became liberated. This is the story of, you know, American poverty and how it forces people to contort themselves in order to fit the narrow mold that it offers them.


DEMBY: After the break, how does race shape resettlement north of the border? Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene - still just Gene right now. CODE SWITCH - the show about race and identity from NPR. I've been talking to Heba Gowayed. She's the author of a new book called "Refuge: How The State Shapes Human Potential." Before the break, Heba explained that, in the U.S., all of the services available to refugees are organized around this idea of self-sufficiency - that those refugees should find work and housing and, you know, get off government assistance as quickly as possible. As Heba said before, the U.S. and Canada formally resettle large numbers of people. And we just talked about the United States. So what does that resettlement look like north of the border where, you know, there's free health care for all and all these generous government services?

To contrast to the United States, which you say in - our immigration, our refugee policy, is built around this idea of self-sufficiency, Canada, our neighbors to the north, their immigration and refugee policy in particular, is built around this idea of integration. There's this viral video that you point to. It's a choir of Canadian children singing in Arabic and French and English.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

DEMBY: It was part of this push that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, was sort of championing. And you say that that image of this, like, welcoming Canada belies how much racial exclusion has shaped Canada's approach to refugee resettlement and immigration more broadly.

GOWAYED: Yes, but before I get there, I've got to say the Syrian women are, like, in love with Justin Trudeau...


GOWAYED: ...Because they're like, look at how ugly, like, our president is. But look at this one (laughter).

DEMBY: And he's crying for us. Right, exactly. He was - he's trying to...

GOWAYED: (Laughter) He's crying for us.

DEMBY: Yeah.

GOWAYED: He's cute. Like, people were - you know, the Syrian women were all about Justin Trudeau - the ones in the United States anyway.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Of course.

GOWAYED: But yeah, I mean, you know, it's so interesting because when I first got to Canada, I was like, look at this. You know, it was, like, nice, people get assistance - and they do, right? There is this investment in language learning, right? They're not supposed to work in the first year. So it results in a very different kind of expression of potential, right? People do learn English. People do sort of - are able to build more than they are in the United States. But at the same time and as you point out - you know, and I can't remember where I read this, but I read somewhere that Canada's welcome mat is surrounded by a bed of nails. And in order to understand the Canadian investments, you have to understand the context in which they exist. You know, the idea of multiculturalism, which is, you know, touted in Canada, you know, is done as many Indigenous activists have argued, to their exclusion - right? - to the exclusion of folks who, you know - to the Canadian First People.

You have to recognize that Canada is not only surrounded by three sides by frigid cold water but also by the safe third country agreement at the U.S.-Canadian border, which allows Canada to sort of send folks back here who come from here to Canada unauthorized. Canada has a very restrictive visa policy. And Canada operates on a point system where folks who are immigrants in Canada, you know, outside of the refugee system are selected based on their skills. And so the people who arrive in Canada as immigrants, for the most part, don't need access to social services. They're doctors, lawyers, engineers. They're super high-skilled people. So it's not that Canada is like this racial utopia, but that, you know, integration of refugees is done in the context of these broader, more hostile policies.

But even when you look at the resettlement of refugees itself, you do get this white savior-ism, right? So, you know, a big part of the Canadian program is private sponsorship, where a group of five families or five people, a group of five, sponsors a Syrian family in order to arrive to Canada. And they have to come up with the money. They have to come up with the, you know, housing for that family, and - in order to support them for the first year. Now, it can be a group of five individuals, or it can be done by an organization in Canada. It can also be done by family member of the person who's arriving. And also, what's important to know is that privately sponsored families also have access to other state benefits. So, for instance, they have access to health care. They also have access to the Canadian child benefit, which provides assistance per child. So there are also other sources of income.

However, the primary regular cash assistance and also the housing comes from that private sponsor. And while private sponsorship is an excellent additional vehicle, in addition to government sponsorship 'cause it increases the number of people who are admitted, it also makes it so that a lot of Canadians have a stake in the resettlement process. At the same time, it can turn what should be a government benefit into a private gift, right? So now you arrive to Canada and your assistance, your housing, your livelihood, your support is based on this group of five Canadians.

DEMBY: Can you give us an example of some of the tensions between a refugee and this sort of council of five that has decided to take them on?

GOWAYED: Yeah. So Israa in my - in the book, Israa is a mother of three children, and her and her husband arrive in Canada and are resettled by a group of five families. And she is very grateful to this group of five families. So Israa has never said to me at any point that, you know, she resents them or that they aren't good to her. But I did notice that when the first year of assistance is up - the refugee cash assistance - the families are - receive welfare. And Israa's husband really struggled with mental health issues. You know, he...

DEMBY: Well, he's a refugee. He, like, is fleeing a war...

GOWAYED: He's a refugee. There's a war, also. His mom was, like, not doing well. He felt really far from her. He didn't feel like he could support her 'cause he was on the Canadian cash assistance. So he was just really - he was struggling. I mean, they also have a kid who was sick. He just was not doing well. And so after the year was up, you know, Israa worked. Her husband tried to find jobs but really couldn't hold down a job. She's actually very talented with languages, so she was already at a level four or five in English, but they needed access to welfare. And the Canadian government on their website says it's really normal for refugees, after a year here, to transition to provincial or local assistance, right? The Canadian government is like, yeah, guys, like, y'all might need a little bit more time than 12 months to adjust to everything that's happened to y'all.

But the people who - you know, one of the members of the group of five, or multiple members of the group of five, were very upset that Israa and her husband were going to transition to welfare. They were like, y'all should have found a job already. And I was shocked by this. So when we think about private sponsorship in Canada, which has been touted as sort of a golden bullet - right? - when we think about this, we have to think about what it means to treat people who are arriving not as, you know, people who are entitled to our support because they have been - their homes have been decimated, or do we receive them as sort of charity cases, right? Do we receive them as people who are - whose livelihood is contingent on our generosity?


DEMBY: So you're making the case that in the United States, resettlement is guided, it's organized around this idea of self-sufficiency. In Canada, the organizing principle is integration. But you also followed a bunch of Syrian families that resettled in Germany. So what were things like in Germany?

GOWAYED: So one of the people who I spoke to in Germany, he put it much better than I could ever put it, which is that they enter a German system structured for Germans, right? And he said it's a German system that works very well for Germans. But Germany is a country that is really fascinating because, you know, as I said before, in 2015, they admitted half a million - you know, between 2015 and 2016, they admitted half a million Syrian refugees.

DEMBY: Five hundred thousand. Wow...



GOWAYED: ...Five hundred thousand, yeah...


GOWAYED: ...Which is a huge number.

DEMBY: That's a huge number. Absolutely.

GOWAYED: I mean, it's a huge, huge number of people. I mean, at this point, I think 1% of the German population is Syrian.

DEMBY: Whoa. Oh, wow. Wow, wow.

GOWAYED: Yeah, yeah. It's huge. But this is part of the story - right? - because before 2000, you couldn't even become - you couldn't become a citizen of Germany unless you had Germanic blood. Like, that was the criteria...

DEMBY: And of course, it's...

GOWAYED: ...Right?

DEMBY: ...Germany, so Germanic blood is, like, a very loaded...

GOWAYED: Oh (laughter).

DEMBY: It's a very frightening...

GOWAYED: Yeah, it's...

DEMBY: ...Construction. Absolutely.

GOWAYED: It's not good. It's not good. And the official statement was, Germany is not a country of immigration. Germany has not set out prior to the Syrian group to say, y'all are admitted, and we're going to actually - we're going to keep you here. And that really shows in the system because in order to work in the German economy, you have to have a credential, which 85% of Germans have, which is earned through something called a dual system, where, you know, you can either become an apprentice or go to a German university. But what I didn't understand before I got there is that you need an apprenticeship for anything.


GOWAYED: So if you're going to be a bus driver, if you're going to be a hairdresser, if you're going to be, you know, a carpenter - just, like, everything.

DEMBY: The way you describe the German system, all - this, like, entire giant credentialing apparatus that is centralized and requires, like, licenses and certificates, and all these people need to have, like, the stuff rubber-stamped. I'm like, bro, this is - how would anybody navigate this?

GOWAYED: Yeah, and the analogy, you know, that I think of when I think of the German case is a tightrope - right? - because if you're able to walk that tightrope, if you're willing to go back four years, if you're willing to do the additional apprenticeships, if you're willing to just, you know, fit yourself into the German system, whatever that on-ramp looks like, you will get to a middle-class life, right? And the thing is, is that the German system is very labor-oriented. Like, this is a great system to be a worker in, provided that you can follow the narrow - the straight and narrow pathway because if you do follow it, your job is secure. There are clear credentials for your job. You apprentice at the place where you're hired. There are clear schedules for how much you should be paid in each job, right? The regimentation does, in a sense, protect the worker. But, you know, I said before that 85% of Germans have this credential. Fifteen percent who don't have the credential tend to be people of color, right? Who is left out, right? Who is left out of the system? And I spoke to people, you know, who are thinking of going back to Syria or going back to Turkey, being like, I can't do this. I can't do this.

Now, if you have a learning disability or if you've - if you don't know how to read or write English - right? - or even if you're illiterate in Arabic, which some folks are, there's just no way that you're going to learn German. It's going to take you two or three years, right? And then you have to get the credential on top of that. So people are like, I don't have eight years. I don't have eight years to waste. And to add to that, Gene, is that a lot of them are in debt because to get across the Aegean Sea, to get to Germany costs a lot of money. And so you arrive in Germany and you're in debt to a family member. You're in debt to somebody who can't afford to not be paid back. And now you're in front of a system that refuses to see you as worthy of work. So to them, it can feel like another door closed.

DEMBY: And this is - seems to be one of the through lines in the way that a lot of countries in Europe, in Western Europe in particular, have dealt with the influx of people from Syria who are displaced from these places. They have these robust social democracies, right? These robust welfare states - right? - health care, parental leave, like, a yearlong parental leave, and some places guarantee right to housing. And like you said, they conceived of those things for - even if their countries aren't really as homogenous as they think they are, they were conceived in this context in which they thought of themselves as, like, all Norwegian or all Swedish or all German. And then you have all these people who are not those things and who, like, basically making the same demands of the system they have set in place. And it activates a lot of very nakedly racist backlash, right? I mean, you spend a lot of time in the chapter about Germany talking about how much virulent racism people are encountering as they try to make their way in this new place.

GOWAYED: Yeah. And, you know, this is the other part of the German system for Germans, which is why it's such a good quote, which is that, you know, Germany is protected, or Germany sees itself - because it's been homogenous for so long, because it's seen itself as, you know, a German state that is not a destination for immigrants that you could only become a part of if you had Germanic blood, the result of that is that they see themselves as having a homogenous culture, which they call leitkultur, which is leading culture. And its politicians talk about this, and they - when they talk about it - Thomas de Maiziere, who is, you know, a politician in so many ways in Germany but was also part of Angela Merkel's cabinet, you know, talking about this defined it as against, you know, Muslims. He said, we are not burqa, is how it starts out. We shake hands across gender. You know, in order to - you know, if you want to assimilate, you can be part of it. But some people will not want to assimilate and, therefore, will never be part of our country.

And so there is this very strong idea that you have to relinquish parts of your identity to fit in. You know, women told me that they were denied jobs, for instance, at a day care because, quote, "it would send the wrong message to the children" to have a woman with a hijab working at the day care. And this happened constantly. They were denied jobs at pharmacies. They were told, you know, not to go into routes that were more, you know, client facing, you know, because they were told that their hijabs would sort of be nonstarters, despite the fact that this isn't legal necessarily in Germany, but it's just the way that things work.


DEMBY: OK, so you've laid out the problems, the serious problems with each of these models of resettlement. And so back here in the U.S., I'm curious what you think we should do, how we should reimagine the way we welcome refugees in this country.

GOWAYED: Yeah. So there's a lot of ways that I can answer this question. You know, at a basic level, I think the answer is actually not about refugees at all. I think the answer is about whether or not we treat people who need help in this country as, you know, threats to our resources, threats to our security, threats to what we have or whether we see them as human beings just like us, who have capabilities just like us, who if we don't help them, if we don't support them, if we don't invest in them and recognize that potential, that we're denying them and us their possibilities, right? We're denying everyone the possibility of, you know, having that sort of creativity as part of our society. And so there's - you know, the first part of my answer is that we need to invest and recognize people more broadly, right? We need to have a more expansive social welfare system. We need to provide child care. We need to provide health care. We need to stop treating people as burdens on our society and instead see them, you know, as people, right?

But, you know, if I was speaking to somebody in D.C., if I'm speaking to a policymaker interested in more discrete policies, I have a response for them, too, right? There's no reason that welcome money should be the only assistance that we offer folks, right? Extend folks' assistance for at least a year. Provide people the time to adjust. Expand English classes offered. Fund your resettlement agencies. I mean, we have an issue now. So the Biden administration's quota for resettlement is at 125,000 people for this year. Do you know how many they resettled, Gene?

DEMBY: How many? I'm very curious.

GOWAYED: Nine thousand.

DEMBY: So OK - bad, bad (ph).

GOWAYED: You know, when the fiscal year for the - the fiscal year ends, like - what is it? In September?

DEMBY: Mmm hmm. They're not going to move 116,000...

GOWAYED: So they've done 9,000 so far. We're in May. It's May 23.

DEMBY: Why is this giant gap between the 125- and the 9,000? Like, what is happening there?

GOWAYED: So folks like to say, oh, well, it's because we admitted people, Afghanis via humanitarian parole and the Ukrainians via humanitarian parole. So that means that, you know, that's taking up the work - that resettlement agencies are too busy. But you hit the nail on the head with what you just said, right? It's a question - so the argument is that it's a question of political capacity, but truly, it's a question of political will because why isn't the administration investing in resettlement agencies to hire additional folks, right? It's not for lack of money. This country - the budget of the CBP, the Customs and Border Patrol, alone is $17.7 billion with a B. It's not for a lack of money. So, you know, to reform the system, we need to do what we set out to do. We need to invest in folks. And we need to do more. We need to provide more support, more assistance for folks who are arriving here, who are coming here for refuge because they are humanitarian cases. And we need to treat them that way. We need to recognize that they need our support in order to get on their feet and really join, you know, American society.

DEMBY: I mean, I'm very curious of what you make of the very quick way, the sort of alacrity around the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. As we all know, Russia invaded Ukraine. In the last 2 1/2 months, there's been - you know, it's not uncommon if you go out into the world in certain places to see Ukrainian flags everywhere, to see them all over social media. There was a real desire to allow Ukrainians a place to resettle. And it seemed in stark contrast from our conversations around Syrians or Palestinians or lots of other populations, Haitians, as you mentioned before, lots of other populations who've attempted to resettle into the United States. What do you think that is about?

GOWAYED: Yeah. So yesterday I actually did a heartbreaking interview with a Cameroonian woman who is here in Tijuana, and she's been here for - she's been, you know, displaced for three years. And she told me what it felt like to watch Ukrainians be admitted across the border while she was still waiting, right? Her and her three children are still waiting, and her asylum claim will not be heard because Title 42, a policy that denies people the right to apply for asylum - while the Biden administration did attempt to rescind it, that decision was blocked by a federal judge just this past Friday. And so this is a woman who, you know, was raped by the military in the Cameroon, trafficked to Nigeria, spent eight months trying to fight her way across, you know, the Americas to the US-Mexico border, arrives at the US-Mexico border, says, this is what happened to me, and nobody will listen to her. And at the same time, Customs and Border Patrol were told to use their discretion when it came to Ukrainians. So there was, for a hot second, a Ukrainian camp in Tijuana, but they don't need it anymore 'cause now Ukrainians are able to fly in from Mexico City directly to the United States. And we see this - we see a facsimile of this globally, right? Poland is building a 350 million euro wall against which people are dying - right? - Black and brown folks are dying, while at the same border, Ukrainians are being welcomed through.

But, Gene, what I've been saying about this - 'cause I've been asked this question a couple of times now - what I've been saying about this is that we can't stop here at the ostentatious racism at the border, right? So the ostentatious racism at the border tells us one story. But the fact is that these systems have been killing Black and brown folks. These same borders have been killing Black and brown folks well before the first Ukrainian was displaced and will continue killing Black and brown folks well after the last one is settled.

And so instead, I want to recast this moment to imagine what the world would be like if we treated everyone with the same dignity, humanity and respect that we're treating Ukrainians with. If we imagined everyone to also be worthy of refuge, worthy of reprieve, worthy of being invited across our borders, worthy of the investment and, you know, and worthy of the welcome - right? - because Biden came out and said, oh, we are going to welcome Ukrainians, which to me was such a jarring statement because not a single person, you know, that I've spoken to in the United States who arrived here as a refugee feels welcome. And so when we think about this case, what I want us to do is to see these systems that are being in place as evidence of the fact that, you know, the denial of other refugees and other immigrants was never a question of political capacity and always a question of political will.


GOWAYED: And so let's use this as a moment to no longer believe the argument that, oh, we can't fulfill our refugee quota because, you know, we don't have the capacity for it, and instead ask, well, why don't you have the capacity for it 'cause you do create the capacity when you want to create capacity, right? If they wanted to, they would.


DEMBY: Heba Gowayed is a sociologist at Boston University, and she's the author of a new book, "Refuge: How The State Shapes Human Potential." Thank you so much, Heba. Appreciate you.

GOWAYED: Thank you so much for having me, Gene. This was amazing.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter if you do Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. If you're on IG, we're also @nprcodeswitch. I'm on Twitter @GeeDee215. That's G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. If email is more your thing, get at us at, and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and edited by Leah Donnella. And we got to shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Christina Cala, Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Summer Thomad, Taylor Jennings-Brown and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.


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