Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Emporia and Refugee Resettlement - A Social Cauldron Ready to Explode

“The making of an American begins at the point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land.”
- James Baldwin

Here in Emporia, Kansas there is a social cauldron boiling. Catholic Charities in Kansas City, along with our State Department, Tyson Foods, and state social service agencies are moving this city toward becoming a refugee resettlement center, particularly Somali refugees who have been bounced from place to place ever since they arrived here in America.

When the announcement was made public in the Emporia Gazette on November 3rd the backlash was palpable. Some in power claimed that the reaction was stemming from hatred and racism. While Emporia, like any community, has its share of racists and bigots, the claim made by those who should have known better was a categorical lie. The overwhelming majority of the people who live here are of good will, eager to lend a helping hand to those in need. They’re not racists or xenophobes. This is a good and generous city.

The thing that got people upset was the fact that Federal bureaucrats, a large employer, and social service agencies seem to be making decisions about our collective futures without our consent and with little regard to the impact their decisions will have on us.

There’s going to be a meeting tomorrow night so that the public can make its concerns known. That’s the reason given and I hope it will actually go according to that plan. But I know enough about politicians and bureaucrats to be concerned that they intend to monopolize the time and tune out our concerns. We’ll see.

I’ve prepared something to say at the meeting. I’m not sure I’ll get to share it. So, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on my blog. They express what a lot of us here are feeling. For those who read this blog, please get the word out. People in positions of authority and responsibility are acting recklessly, doing great damage to those they say they want to help and to the communities affected by their reckless behavior. What’s happening here is being duplicated in other small towns in this country.

The transcript follows, in full.

In Monday’s Gazette Pat Kelley said rightly that this is a time for us to get answers. But, like most things Pat Kelley says he got the little things right and the big things wrong. He said in his editorial that the root to the problem that brings us here is fear. While that may be the case for a few, most of us are here because our trust has been betrayed. That is the truth and that’s why we’re here.

We’re not here because we’re bigots, racists, or xenophobes. We’re here to get answers to questions we have, not express hatred. We’ve come to extend the hand of brotherhood, not hatred.

It’s unfortunate that some in positions of trust and authority have labeled those who question in such a manner. This issue should occupy the highest moral ground, but some are using it as an opportunity to misinform, mis-label, and use political sleight of hand. Because of this they have lost that high ground.

I don’t believe it’s too late to climb that mountain, but I can say with certainty that time is of the essence.

How have we gotten to this point? It’s taken years and the moral failures that have broken the chords of trust are everywhere. What is being played out here in Emporia is being played out against the backdrop of international failures on a grand scale. International institutions that were founded on the premise of international justice have rejected their mandates in favor of inaction and greed. We’ve seen Rwanda, North Korea, Darfur, and the Balkans. We’ve witnessed the food for oil scandal and profit schemes built on the backs of the world’s poor and needy. The betrayal of trust has been monumental.

Americans have tried to fill this void. For my Somali brothers and sisters I want to remind you that it was a mission of mercy that originally bound us together. When international institutions failed, we felt compelled to step into the void. America, as it had done in the Balkans, came to relieve the suffering of Muslims, not compound it. What we did was in the best American tradition. Or motivation was justice and mercy.

Since those early days in Mogadishu America has kindly offered opportunity to the oppressed of Somalia. We’ve opened our doors. Unfortunately our national institutions have betrayed our trust here as well. Our State Department, with all the institutional power at its disposal, has given the Somali people a few days of orientation and then sent them pillar to post throughout America. They’ve used what bureaucrats call unfunded mandates. Many of us see this as a way for them to wash their hands like Pontius Pilate of old. When the inevitable backlash has come they act as though they’re surprised. Just what did they expect? Did they expect us to believe there would be no price tag? This is not a self-funded endeavor. Someone is going to have to pay for this and it does not appear that it will be those who’ve waved their magic wands in Washington, D.C. While we in Emporia and other communities will have to wrestle mightily with how to come up with the resources necessary, those who have set this chain in motion will be eating sumptuous meals in Foggy Bottom, reflecting on their own virtue. The betrayal of our trust in this area is every bit as monumental as the international failures.

Closer to home, in Kansas City, a service agency has taken up the mantle. On November 3rd Steve Weitkamp of Catholic Charities told the Gazette that in the future he expected Emporia to be developed as a refugee center. He further told the Gazette, “I expect that there will be direct re-settlement here.” “If re-settlement starts here, that will expand our role. ... I also see at some point the office here could possibly become cut loose from us and become an office on its own, applying for funding. If the numbers of refugees increase, it is possible the local office would apply to Washington to become a sub office.”

If the people of Emporia felt powerless and betrayed in the face of Federal mandates, it was all compounded with that declaration. Many Emporians now felt that decisions about their futures were being made without their consultation or consent. Those feelings of betrayal were, I believe, justified. We’d like to believe that Catholic Charities’ motives are benevolent, but I must be honest and say that I and others have serious misgivings in this regard. I see a bureaucracy hungry to become larger. Mr. Weitkamp’s statement of November 3rd says as much.

For many of us this seems to be a case of things being set in motion with little regard to the people of Emporia. I doubt that Mr. Weitkamp knows much about us. He probably doesn’t know that our poverty rate is over 17% or that our household incomes are far below the Kansas and national averages. He doesn’t know my wife’s mother, an eighty-eight year old widow living on a small pension and caring for a developmentally disabled son. Each day when my wife and I visit her she recounts the ways she tries to save money. “Lettuce is 10 cents cheaper at Aldi’s.” “I don’t like going to Wal-Mart because it costs more gas money to get there than it does the other stores.” “Phil, could you fill my car up with gas. I heard the price is going to go up two cents a gallon later today.”

Do these agencies really want us to believe that this is going to be a cost neutral venture? Do they really believe us to be rubes, so gullible that we’ll swallow anything fed to us without consideration to its effect on us? We’re being told that there really won’t be much impact. We simply don’t believe that’s credible. Adding 1,000 refugees to an already high poverty city is clearly going to compound our problem. In fact, based on the numbers, it could have as much as a three percent impact. Our poverty rate could increase to as much as twenty percent. Is that Catholic Charities idea of a cost-neutral solution?

And, the movers and shakers seem to be stunned by the backlash. Why in God’s name would that be so? It seems to me that it can only be because they’ve hatched their plans without any regard for the citizens of this city. I doubt that Catholic Charities even considered my wife’s mother or many other Emporians when they set their plan in motion. I doubt they even cared. The moral bankruptcy in that position is evident to me.

Our largest employer, Tyson, has given many Somalis employment. They’d like us to believe that their purposes here are noble. Well, that dog won’t hunt. Tyson’s purpose is profit, pure and simple. If their purposes were so noble, why have Tyson and other corporations in the meat processing industry caught the attention of Human Rights Watch? Is Human Rights Watch wrong when they say categorically that minorities are being pitted against each other, Somali against Hispanic, Hispanic against Vietnamese, minority against minority, all in a relentless drive to profit? Are they wrong when they say that employment abuse is close to pandemic? Who are we to believe? Tyson or Human Rights Watch?

And, to compound things, any time someone raises questions Tyson issues veiled threats about leaving for friendlier shores. It’s tantamount to corporate extortion. It’s “either stay in line or we’ll leave you high and dry.” This is a morally bankrupt position and deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms.

Caught in the middle of all this are the people of Emporia and Somalia. We’re caught in the crossfire of moral bankruptcy and neglect. It’s being left to us to pick up the pieces passed from institution to agency to employer. What should have been a chord of brotherhood has become a chain of abuse of power passed down to its lowest level, to you and me. It’s up to us to fix what has been broken.

I’d like to close with a word to my Somali brothers and sisters. The overwhelming majority of Emporians have great empathy for you. Most of us don’t know a great deal about your history, but we know enough to understand the long, painful journey that’s brought you here. We know that you came to Somalia as bondsmen and lived for generations at the mercy of slave-masters. We know that you’ve been left by the international community at the mercy of war-lords. We care. As I said earlier, it was a mission of mercy that originally bound us together. This country was willing to expend its blood and treasure, our sons and daughters, on your behalf. Those who fell had families and dreams of a better life, but they were willing to lay them down for you. For many of us the pain of seeing Americans dying on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 is still searing. That pain may be our most powerful bond, the pain of your history and the pain of our sacrifice. I think it may be the place where the olive branch of brotherhood could be extended here in Emporia.

One of the unfortunate lessons you’ve learned from our government officials, service agencies, and others in authority is that you’re entitled. You’re entitled to benefits. You’re entitled You’re entitled to respect and dignity. You’re entitled…You’re entitled…You’re entitled. That’s only half-true and half-truths can be exceedingly dangerous. That’s only half the great American equation. The other is that along with the benefits come responsibilities to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. That sense of responsibility comes from a heart of gratitude. We’ve learned over time that a life focused on entitlement eventually leads to a life of serfdom. We recognize that to whom much is given much is also required. I believe it would be good if you would join us in that sense of responsibility and gratitude. We’re willing to extend the olive branch. The door of opportunity has been opened to you. I hope and pray that you will open it gratefully. I believe a good place for you to begin is for you to express your sense of gratefulness to the American people for the sacrifices they have made on your behalf. In all of the dialogue to this point I’ve never heard any sense of thanks from the Somali community expressed. It may be felt, but it hasn’t been expressed. This would be a good place for us to begin healing the pain of our shared history. I believe it would be altogether fitting for you to thank the American people, who have given their sons and daughters so that you and your families could shake the yoke of oppression. If we start there, I believe the chords of brotherhood can bind up the wounds that still prevail. If we don’t, misunderstanding and mistrust will continue to fester. If we start there I believe the sacrifices made by American families on your behalf will claim their true meaning.

The olive branch is being extended; you’re being invited to sit at the table of brotherhood. Please, in the name of God, accept the invitation.


Anonymous said...

Very well said and expressed. I do however, fear that the "Good old boy" network that seems to manage this town to their own selfish benefit, will turn a deaf ear to your thoughts as they continue to try and ram it down our throats. It is very evident that we the citizens of Emporia have been betrayed by Catholic Charaties, SRS, and the Emporia Gazette, in concert with the governmental do-gooders.

Dr Mac said...

Very well said and expressed, Phil. It would be nice if the inner circle "good old boys", the Catholic Charaties, Pat Kelly and his group, along with the Slum Lords in this great city, had a clue to the problem, or cared about the problem. They have no respect for those of us who are picking up the tab for the choices they have made without our input. This smells of being a typical Tyson maneuver. I think the monopoly of Tyson Foods, Catholic Charities, and the SRS, should be exposed for what they really are.

Anonymous said...

In all fairness I'd like to express that the Gazette misquoted Mr. Weitkamp and took him out of context.

Topcat said...

What is the latest on this? Are the people of Emporia attempting to fight this in any way?

Catholic Charities (and the others) is doing a grave injustice to the people of Emporia by violating the principal of subsidiarity (google it). The people of Emporia are not being given a voice in decisions that greatly impact their own community. This is not God's work.

With all due respect, don't be so apologetic in defense of your community. Muslims do not belong in our country or communities period. They should be resettled in their own areas of the world. The ones being resettled in Emporia should leave.

It is not racist to want to preserve the historic racial and cultural makeup of our communities for future generations. Every non-Western nation in the world does this without apology and it is time we returned to it, too.