One day, just like any other, a patient entered the office. She was smiling politely, as most patients do, but this day was different. I remember seeing her facade melt away as she began to sob when we discussed the nightmares keeping her awake at night.
I wanted to solve her problem with conventional methods — medications and a diagnosis. I realized, however, that these terrors were not from her imagination but instead from her memories of her life before coming to the United States. Although this woman has to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, among the millions of refugees worldwide, she is actually fortunate to be part of the fraction who are in the U.S. and treated for their suffering.
Many people are afraid that assisting refugees like this scared woman would cost the U.S. government too much money. However, refugees should be thought of as an investment, an asset to our society. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the U.S. government invests $15,000 per year, per refugee, over a five-year period of resettlement. While this sounds like a large amount of money, the NBER also estimates that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes over 20 years than they receive in benefits. The small investment the U.S. makes in the refugee resettlement process eventually gets paid back, builds the economy and diversifies our community.
This woman I met at the Utah Health and Human Rights office is one of the many refugees who inevitably struggles during the resettlement process. As of 2017, the world has more refugees than it has had since World War II, with the United Nations reporting the count at 68.5 million people. Many refugees throughout the world have little access to quality medical attention, housing or nutrient-dense foods, yet less than 1 percent of them are resettled to a third country like the U.S. Many of them are most likely struggling with medical conditions, like the woman I met, but due to their circumstances, they cannot attend to them as they are barely surviving their flee from persecution.
Despite our worldwide refugee crisis, with millions of people in camps, internally and externally displaced, the U.S. is accepting far fewer refugees than we have in previous years. We have accepted an average of 70,000 refugees per year since the Refugee Act of 1980, which was started by Republican president, Ronald Reagan. Refugee resettlement has always had bipartisan support in the U.S. until now, so something must have changed. This administration has lowered the refugee admission ceiling from 70,000 in 2013 and 110,000 in 2017 to 45,000 currently. Our current course lacks compassion, especially considering our history of opening our doors to so many in need.
We must ask, what has changed to reduce the ceiling? It is not our lack of resources. The crisis abroad has not improved as the political turmoil continues. Perhaps our country’s new political agenda lacks humanism. Are we starting to support an “Us vs. Them” ideology?
Although the refugee admission ceiling is ultimately decided upon by the presidential office, there are things that we as citizens can do to voice our opinions about these inequalities. Ultimately, we need to stop this war of “Us vs. Them” and understand that refugees are not a burden but an asset in our society.
I encourage you to become an individual who fights against human suffering by contacting your local representatives to urge them to support the raising of the refugee admission ceiling. Although these people are not U.S. citizens at this time, they are still humans and deserve our attention.
Maryana Boulos, Salt Lake City, is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Utah. She completed a rotation in refugee health. Her father and his family were born and raised in Aleppo, Syria.