Minnesota's refugee crisis is in our hearts

About 12 million Syrians have fled their country, half of them children. Just nine have been let into Minnesota.

About 12 million Syrians have fled their country, half of them children. Just nine have been let into Minnesota.

The rape victim came back one spring day in 2013. As a young obstetrician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where sexual assault is a weapon of war, Edwige had seen a lot. But not this. The woman had given birth to a baby, the product of her original assault.

Now the mother had been raped again. So had her baby.

Edwige and other doctors started protesting outside government buildings, calling them out for inaction against serial rapists. One day she was approached by a policeman. He pulled Edwige's picture out of his pocket and told her to keep quiet. Or die.

Then a nurse at her clinic was kidnapped by three men, including a cop and a soldier. "Horrible things" were done to her before she was let go.

In a family meeting, Edwige told her parents she feared for her safety. She wanted to go to America. To Minnesota. She had heard this state was good to its newest, neediest residents.

After four months in hiding and three denied visa applications, Edwige was approved entry as a student. A pastor met her at the airport and gave her a place to sleep. She spent the next year living with a woman she met at church. A lawyer for the Advocates for Human Rights took up the case for Edwige to receive a work permit and refugee status. The length and difficulty of getting approved surprised Edwige. And scared her. In her nightmares she would be sent back to the Congo, where her enemies were waiting to kill her.


The former doctor now works as a waitress in a senior home, but she's studying six hours a day for her medical boards next year. She quickly learned English.

The good things Edwige heard about Minnesota are true. Or they were. Going back decades, this has been a hospitable landing for those running from bullets and bombs. Hmong and Vietnamese came in the 1970s and '80s. Later, we took in tens of thousands from Liberia and Somalia.

If the acceptance of refugees has changed our culture or power structure, it's hard to tell. The food's a little spicier. But we have not been subsumed. My mayor is still a white lady named Betsy.

Yet we've clearly lost our nerve. The Paris attacks reduced many Minnesotans to puddles, or left them frozen over. Some 21,000 people signed an online petition saying we shouldn't allow Syrian refugees — as in, not one.

Some misplaced fear borne of ignorance can be expected among the public. Elected leaders have no excuse.

Members of Congress should know the details in Syria, where the next gust of wind might bring Assad's chemical weapons. Where that caravan on the horizon might be ISIS, come to take the heads of the fathers and the virginity of the girls. About 12 million, half of them children, have fled. Wouldn't you?

But the U.S. took in just 1,800 Syrian refugees last year. Minnesota has accepted nine.

Still, six of our eight members of the U.S. House — Republicans Tom Emmer, Erik Paulsen, and John Kline, plus Democrats Tim Walz, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan — voted to tighten restrictions on Syrians immigrants to come here next year. Cowards.

They already know how hard it is to get here, that the act of screening and relocation takes years. Some stay in refugee camps for 20, 30, even 50 years, depending on the fate of paperwork. They live there and they die there.

As national security policy, keeping people inside fences and telling them they're unwanted seems like a good way to make them angry. As a human act, it's sick.

When a plane aims at the Manhattan skyline, a bomb obliterates a London double-decker, or bullets whiz into a Paris café, you and your way of life are the target. That makes the Syrians and Iraqis running from ISIS your brothers in arms, seeking reprieve from the front lines. Think of them as prisoners of a war you're in, but not fighting.

The risk of open borders is obvious, especially to Edwige. If any country was undone by refugees, it's hers. Monsters behind the Rwandan genocide hid out in Congo, regrouped, and ignited the conflict that drove her out. America should be careful.

"But you should not close your door to these people," she says.

Most Americans are only here because our ancestors were running from something or someone. The English on my mom's side fled a tyrant who persecuted them. They were called religious zealots.

My namesake on my dad's side was born in Ireland, but a diseased potato crop uprooted the Mullens. They hopped a boat and settled in Wisconsin. A dozen years later, Michael Mullen was American enough to join the Wisconsin Volunteers in our Civil War. I bet he prayed a lot and sounded funny when he talked.

The idea of America as a refuge goes back to its birth. When Thomas Paine tried to rally civilians to take up arms against the British, he said our cause for freedom belonged to the world. "Receive the fugitive," Paine wrote, "and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

Maybe in time, Tom. But today, terror is winning, and we Americans — and Minnesotans — are too scared to unlock the door.