Jul 22, 2017

Refugees? Immigrants? Assumptions and Stereotypes

My previous post (here)  focused on a recent picture book about the all-too-familiar condition of being a refugee: STORMY SEAS: Stories of Young Boat Refugees.The details of even a few people and events throughout history are heartbreaking and powerful. In many cases, the refugees depicted were also immigrants.
Words matter, and using them accurately matters even more.
Striving to understand and use words accurately can be an effective way to begin to understand ourselves and others.
So...let's explore these concepts, as you might with young readers.

Are REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS the same? Are the words interchangeable?
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015

In one important way they are all alike: 

Both refugees and immigrants are NEW.
That's why an ideal starting point is 
I'M NEW HERE, written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.

There are countless ways in which REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS are similar, and significant ways in which they are NOT the same. Rather than link to just any source, one  that might be considered biased or even political, let's take a look at the two terms linguistically, on THE GRAMMARIST.COM, here. What do wordsmiths have to say about the two terms.

 "refugee is a person who is forced to leave his home and travel to another country in order to escape a natural disaster, war or persecution. ..."
"An immigrant is a person who leaves his home and travels to another country in order to become a permanent member of the population. ..."

Not all refugees are choosing to "never return", and would, in fact, return to their homelands if it were safe to do so.
On the other hand, some have suffered to such a degree that they abandon any thoughts of returning to their homeland.
Not all immigrants are moving to a new homeland entirely by choice. Conditions may not be such that they must flee for their lives, but may include situations that limit their choices, hopes, and future.
On the other hand, some are eagerly seeking a new homeland despite leaving behind safe and loving people and comfortable settings. They may, in fact, face more struggles in the new land, but welcome the challenge and adventure of the move. 

A Venn Diagram of the two words would reveal many elements in common, but some that are critically different. Both are leaving behind homeland, family, and history. Both include a wide range of ages, health conditions, and educational levels. Both immigrants and refugees may travel illegally, while others travel legally.

Despite all of the commonalities, the distinction is:
REFUGEES = No CHOICE, running AWAY FROM danger, might return if they could
IMMIGRANTS = CHOICE, running TOWARD a new home, no plan to return

In fact, especially in recent times, this essential distinction has been blurred in the public consciousness. This confusion is compounded further by social attitudes toward poverty and dependence. 
Some refugees have multiple resources, but the ones who are destitute are the subject  of our opinions and public discussions.
Some immigrants have adequate financial means and social supports in place, but the ones who are destitute or struggling are more visible and are also the subjects of public discussions.

In debates (and rants) about refugees and immigrants, understanding the nuances of the terms (and the individuals) is worth the effort, especially when it comes to the next generation. In order to explore these confusions and assumptions, offering and discussing a wide selection of books provides many examples over the course of history and involving varied circumstances and ethnicities. Many outstanding picture books that are worth including are featured in the following blog posts, and I recommend them highly:


  1. This is such a useful post, Sandy. Thanks for the rec of my book and the link to I'm Your Neighbor, where you'll also find lots of resources to use with the books, including "Creating a Conversation on Welcoming Refugees & Immigrants: A Classroom & Community Event Kit" that was developed for I'M NEW HERE.

  2. Thanks for coming by, Anne. Your book is fantastic, and I appreciate the link to additional resources. I'm looking forward to reading your new novel on North Korea, IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN. Keep 'em coming!


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