In face of refugee crisis, it's time for national conversation about identity
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It is time to have a national conversation about identity. And there is no better place to have this conversation than at the table. It is, after all, that time of year. On Thanksgiving, we customarily gather with family and friends to celebrate a holiday that features sharing a communal meal. So why not extend this tradition to host a follow-on dinner with friends and neighbors to consider why this nation of refugees has been the greatest experiment in democracy? And why, at this moment, so many leaders are trying to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching our shores? Gathering around the table is a first step in the conversation about the fear that has been evoked by the recent terrorist attacks.


If we continue to conflate terrorism with fear of refugees and immigrants, our nation is at risk of compromising the values and philosophy that our Founding Fathers so eloquently proclaimed in our Constitution. Refugees are not the enemy; ignorance is. If we continue to let the conversation about refugees be dominated by politicians whose arguments bear no semblance of truth and are contrary to the facts, we will become a society that lives by fear rather than light. Just look at the Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which received a House vote on Nov. 19, just two days after it was introduced. The vote succeeded 289-137, with almost all Republicans, and 47 Democrats, voting in favor. Would that other pending important legislation receive such timely action. (The president has said that he would veto the bill if it also passes the Senate.)

We are in great danger of pulling up the welcome mat precisely at the wrong moment in history. Not only are we are asking the wrong questions about newcomers, but we are not asking the right questions about who we are as a people. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in a letter to refugees, "there are a lot of things that make me wonder whether we ever look ourselves straight in the face and really mean what we say when we are patting ourselves on the back."

Our fear of refugees does not stop us from eating in ethnic restaurants. There is no community in our nation, large or small, that does not benefit from the foodways of different cultures. These cultures, often victims of conflict, bring us the pho of Vietnam and the pupusas of El Salvador. We trust the family chefs who dish out large portions of Ethiopian tibbs with the iconic injera pancakes. Yet, with the same mouthful, we also find some condemning newcomers as security risks in our midst.

You can taste the hypocrisy.

I teach a college course each year on conflict cuisines. I use the food of diasporas to explain how war can force people to flee, create food insecurity, and ultimately cause refugees to seek other homelands. My students visit the restaurants of war-torn societies — Vietnam, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Ethiopia, to name a few. In each place, they sit down with immigrant chefs who used their cuisine to create a new life, but also remember what brought them to America. They understand how food is a part of national identify, not only a way to make a living. Gathering around the table is a way to build trust with the newest arrivals to our country.

This is a call for action to use the dinner table as a way to begin parsing out the truth about refugees who seek to come to this country. Sharing a meal humanizes us as we break bread together. In the openness of our homes, churches, synagogues or mosques, we can begin talking about our fears and our hopes for the future.

But what should this national conversation say? We bring to the table our own experiences but also the shared values of freedom, liberty and justice. And our history as a nation has demonstrated that we have been flexible enough to accommodate hundreds of different nationalities that make up the international quilt of citizens who all call themselves American. It is precisely these values that those who seek refuge in our country have yearned for in their often perilous journey to make a new life.

If we are to end the demonization of refugees, we must begin to talk about who we are as a people. Each person carries his or her own history, forming the context for the values that make us who we are as individuals, but also as a collective. We are Americans. And that means we all come from somewhere, even if that somewhere is now but a part of some distant memory. A national conversation around the table can be a powerful step to help tone down the rhetoric of hate and xenophobia and create a more realistic platform to evaluate our values in a globalized world.

Forman is a senior adviser at the Stimson Center's Managing Across Boundaries Program and a scholar-in-residence at American University's School of International Service.