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A Smile is a Universal Language: Protecting Refugees and Immigrants in Our Community

Andrea Green, M​​D, FAAP
April 1, ​2016

Among​ the diverse refugee community in the United States, many individuals share a common story of persecution, war, and fear so significant that they have uprooted themselves and their loved ones in search of safety. They are driven by a desire to protect those who mean the most to them, most often their children. 

Resettlement is about starting again. It is about giving up on going back home because the conflicts have no end in sight. It is not an easy choice, and it is not one afforded all refugees.  Only 1 percent of the world's refugees are resettled. Many will live out their lives in refugee camps. Arrival in the U.S., a country that has welcomed you and offered you sanctuary, should mean hope. Restarting is not easy.  ​

"They had no home to go back to, as war was still ongoing in their country of origin."

In my work as a pediatrician, I k​now the gratitude of families who have sacrificed their lives for a better one for their children. I was shocked by what one of my patients' mothers, a former refugee, told me recently. She explained that she was unable to sleep because she had been trying to figure out to where she and her family would go when they were forced to leave the United States. They had no home to go back to, as war was still ongoing in their country of origin.

Confused, I assured the mother that she was safe. She is a U.S. citizen, I told her, and there was no cause for alarm. But my words did little to put her mind at ease. 

"I see it on the TV everyday", she said. "They don't like immigrants and refugees here." It was clear to her that they were not welcome in the United States and might be forced to leave.  ​

"We may not speak the same language, but a smile is a universal welcome with the power to comfort and console​."

As American author and radio personality Garrison Keillor once said, "To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America.… they come on behalf of their children, and they come for freedom.…if we knew their stories, we could not keep back the tears." 

Alienation and marginalization of refugees and immigrants hurts. Hateful rhetoric breeds continued persecution, even in sanctuary. Marginalized individuals are prime targets for radicalization. Integration of refugees into our communities promotes resilience. If we want to protect ourselves from threats, the answer is to speak with words of love, kindness and compassion.  ​

As we work with families to address the health needs of immigrant children, I implore those with the loudest voices to speak up for those who are hurt and shamed even in a land that promises safety. We have little ability to change the trauma these families experience outside our borders, but we can strive to build resilience and security here in the U.S. We may not speak the same language, but a smile is a universal welcome with the power to comfort and console.  

​​Ab​out the ​​Author


​​​Andrea Green, MD FAAP, is a pediatrician who has been caring for refugee children in Vermont for 10 years. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Community Pediatrics Executive Committee.