Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Refugees After Paris: An Eyewitness Account

GenJ Alum, Katie Kerschner

Guest post by Katie Kerschner

Earlier this year Katie Kerschner took a leave of absence from her law practice in California to spend 11 weeks in Iraq working with women who had been rescued out of ISIS captivity. She was actively involved with GenJ Student Action Teams during high school, and has been a huge supporter of GenJ and their mission ever since.

The views expressed in this post are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Generation Joshua or GenJ affiliates.

It’s the weekend of July 4th and our small team pulls into Duhok, Iraq after a long day of travel. We took the long way from Erbil, just to ensure we didn't accidentally end up in any ISIS controlled areas. We were traveling without an interpreter, and had not told anyone we were making the trip for security reasons. We decided to be wise and not risk taking a wrong turn on the way there. It was late and we hadn't eaten since lunch time. Everyone was very tired and hungry, looking forward to sleeping for a few hours. After taking our bags up to our room and settling in for a few minutes, we get back in the car to go find something to eat. At this point it's after midnight.

While stopped at a traffic light we see a little boy approaching our car. He's probably only 7 or 8 years old, and he's completely alone. He had some small packages of gum that he was trying to sell for a little profit. He's one of many refugee children who don't have a place to sleep, or any money for food. We roll down the window and hand him a granola bar and some applesauce that we had in the car. We ask where he is from. Pointing to ourselves we say, “Americhi.” Then we point to him and say, “Iraqi? Turkish? Syrian?” He responds so gleefully, pointing to himself, saying, “Syria! Syria!”

The light turns green and we pull away. Looking back we see him eating what we have given him with a smile on his face. This little boy that we met for that brief moment in time on the streets of Duhok, Iraq, in the middle of the night, is a young Syrian refugee.

When people talk about the refugee crisis, I see their faces and hear their voices. When people talk about ISIS militants, I can see the face of one of the men who held a young Yazidi woman captive for months. She was able to show me a picture of him, and the image is forever seared in my brain. When people start talking about ISIS, I often have to leave the room. The threat of ISIS, the refugees, acts of terrorism, it’s all very real to me.

The desire to keep our families and friends safe

Katie's camera cannot capture the full scope of what she saw
I understand the desire to keep your family and community safe. I've seen first hand the reality of the horrors of ISIS. As I held a sobbing 9 year old orphan girl who had been tortured and raped by ISIS militants, I couldn't help but think of my little sisters back home. Believe me when I say that I want to do everything in my power to make sure that my family is safe here in America. To this day it haunts me that my work in the middle east could have put my family at an elevated risk. I remember the time when I sent a cryptic message to a close friend asking him to carry his gun at all times over the weekend, and I couldn't tell him why. I remember when the team basically cut all communication back home, because we were concerned about the safety of our families and our communication being intercepted. I totally get the desire to protect our families, and I've personally taken what would seem to most to be drastic steps to that end. I get it.

But this desire for safety must be tempered by reason and facts. While I was in Iraq I started researching what it took to obtain refugee status in the US. I did so because our team received word of a 11 year old who had been impregnated by ISIS militants. This little one was being rejected by her last remaining living family members because she was carrying an “ISIS baby.” I didn’t pursue it, because it would have taken 18 months to 2 years for her to be able to come to America through that process. Much has been written over the last several days about this process, and I will not repeat it here.

Why closing the US to all refugees from Syria isn’t the right answer


Moon rise in the Middle East
I could go on for days about the command to love that we have as Christians, or about how the God given role of a civil government is to protect it’s citizens. I could speak passionately about how it seems like these two concepts are directly opposed in the current refugee crisis, and how we must act with wisdom. But others have already written about that, so I won’t repeat their words here. What I do want to address is that America, as a nation, has a moral obligation to help those fleeing from ISIS. Humanitarian aid is not generally a role that should fall under the jurisdiction of a government, but should instead be filled by the Church. It does, however, fall under the jurisdiction of the government when the government created the situation that led to the need of aid.

There is a well known principle of common law that an omission, or failure, to act isn't generally a crime. For example, if you drive by a car accident and fail to stop and render aid, and the driver dies because you didn't help, you cannot be convicted of murder. There are very few exceptions to this rule. One of those exception is that of creation of peril. If you are the one who caused the car wreck, and you fail to render aid and instead drive off, you could be charged with murder.

ISIS was allowed to grow roots and establish itself in Iraq as a result of a series of actions taken by America. When you remove a dictator from the position of power in a country, someone, or some group, will fill the power void created. After Saddam Hussein was removed from the position of power in Iraq, America filled that void for a time. If the goal was that of long term regional stability, America should not have withdrawn from Iraq before another power (i.e. a stable government) was prepared to fill the void that would be created by an American withdrawal.

Simply put, we left too soon, allowing ISIS to take root. Whether or not we should have been there in the first place is irrelevant now. We created the peril by our actions. Because of that we have a moral obligation to assist refugees who are fleeing from ISIS.

Why taking “only women and children refugees” isn’t the right answer


Her name is Medya, and his name is Shedar. They were so in love and were less than a year from being old enough to marry. That’s when ISIS captured her. He escaped. After months of torture, rape, and abuse in captivity, Medya was able to escape from those holding her captive. The details of her story are horrific, and I could hardly contain my emotions as she recounted her time in captivity. There was one bright spot in her life, one glimmer of hope.

She and Shedar still loved each other. Shedar’s life was at great risk if he remained in ISIS controlled areas, simply because he was a young man of fighting age, not willing to fight for ISIS. If he was caught by ISIS he wouldn't be kept in captivity. Because he’s Yazidi and not Muslim he would meet the same fate that Medya witnessed her brothers, father and uncles face. Death. Execution by a gunshot to the head, in front of any women and children he was captured with. Because it is not safe for him to remain in the area, he was left with no choice but to flee. He promised Medya that they would meet up in Europe, someday, and get married.

If it’s true that the US has a moral obligation to help those who are fleeing from ISIS, it does not matter if those people are men, women, or children. Those fleeing are fleeing for a reason. They fear for their lives.

Why a religious test isn’t the answer


His name is Mahmoud. As a teenage boy he lives with his family in Erbil, Iraq. Out of all his family members, he is the one at greatest risk if ISIS were to ever capture the city. He, as well as his parents and siblings, are Muslim. Muslims who do not agree with what ISIS has done and is doing. Because he is of fighting age, if the Peshmerga were to lose a fight for Erbil, he would be one ISIS would take to train as a militant. Not his sisters or his parents, but him. If ISIS was getting close and the whole family couldn't flee together, they would send him away. Hoping that he would find a place of refuge.

Thousands of Muslims are fighting against ISIS right now. The Peshmarga is the Kurdish Army that is on the front lines fighting ISIS. This army is made up almost entirely of Muslims. These brave soldiers go into battle with very little training, because they are fighting for peace and stability in the region. If you are born in a Muslim country, to Muslim parents, you are Muslim. It was incredibly eye opening to me when I found out that your religion is listed on your birth certificate, and it’s illegal to ever convert to another religion. Your birth certificate saying that you’re a Muslim doesn’t make you a follower of radical Islam anymore than infant baptism makes you a devout Catholic. There are Muslims who are fleeing from ISIS, just the same as Christians and Yazidis.

The solution 


Any long term refugee strategy shouldn’t be centered around what to do or not do with refugees, who to let in, and who to keep out. Instead it should be centered around what should be done to make it so that they no longer are refugees. Instead of talking about whether we should allow Syrian refugees to come to this country, we need to be talking about what should be done to eliminate ISIS. The majority of refugees did not want to leave their countries. Now that they have, they want to return to their homes, in safety. Our long term goal should be to allow them to do that.

We need to act with wisdom, fulfilling the objective of protecting America and eliminating the threat of ISIS. ISIS has declared war on the US, and it’s time for us to get serious about defeating them, before another attack happens in the US.

In the short term, we need to fulfill our moral obligation to those fleeing ISIS. This does not necessarily mean bringing millions of refugees to the US, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that we throw wisdom out the window in screening processes when refugees do come to the US. It does mean that we act with compassion, and look for solutions that allow us to fulfill our moral obligations and protect the citizens of the US. I don’t have all the answers, but I would ask that you be willing to search for them with me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Get to Know Chaz Toplikar

We asked Chaz 10 Questions

Chaz works part time with Generation Joshua while also working hard as a full time student at Patrick Henry College. As a GenJ alum who served on SATs, participated in club activities, and succeeded in running for president at iGovern East, he pours back into GenJ with a passion to teach, empower, and reach the next generation with a message of hope.

1. What was your first job?

Although I had plenty of experience in high school volunteering my first official job was with Generation Joshua.

2. What book are you currently reading?

Unfortunately, the only books I am currently reading are for school since Patrick Henry College doesn’t give me much time for leisure reading. However, I am slowly working through a book that contains 38 mythological stories in Latin, and hoping to read some books I have been wanting to read over Christmas break.

3. What is your dream vacation destination?

I have always wanted to go to Iceland. There really isn’t a whole lot to do as far as attractions or monuments to see, but I am a guy who loves the outdoors. So, my dream vacation destination would be to backpack across Iceland.

4. Where are you most likely to be seen dining when you want a great meal?

Any kind of meal prepared with my mother’s fried chicken. Doesn’t really matter what the rest of the meal is as long as my mother’s fried chicken is involved.

5. What is your favorite professional sports team?

While I’m not really a team sport watcher since I personally prefer individual sports, my favorite professional sports team currently would have to be the New Zealand All Blacks national rugby team. I enjoy watching rugby, and they’re one of the most fun teams to watch in my opinion. If not them, I would definitely have to say the Le Mans Corvette racing team.

6. What is one way you have seen serious growth in your faith as an adult?

The biggest way I have seen my faith grow as an adult would be in my faith. Just everyday faith. I used to stress about so many things, but I have come to understand that, as long as I am seeking God, He will provide. I simply need to trust that. He has shown me time and time again that He will provide, in the big and small things.

7. What’s the most impacting story you read/watched in your youth?

Well… If I can only pick one… the most impacting story of my youth would probably have to be the biography of Eric Liddell. His story compelled me to improve myself and seek God in ways I had never considered before.

8. What motivates you to continue when life gets crazy?

Life is pretty much always crazy for me since I am a full time college student who enjoys extracurricular activities and also works two part time jobs. So the thing that motivates me to continue almost all the time is that I do what I love and I actually want to do it. For the most part, I enjoy school, I like my jobs, and I have fun with the extracurricular activities. So, no matter how crazy it gets, I enjoy it, or know that I will again soon.

9. What were you most surprised about when you started serving with Generation Joshua?

The thing that most surprised me was how loud the office could get at times and then suddenly go back to complete silence. Like, the office works really hard for a good few hours or so, and then suddenly it turns into a dance party or a karaoke contest or something else similar to those items and then just as suddenly as it happened, it goes back to silence and work...

10. What’s one piece of advice that has helped shape the course of your life?

The biggest piece of advice I ever received was when someone told me, “We all get knocked down. We all fail. That is unavoidable and something we have to accept. But, it’s the ones who get back up and don’t ever stop fighting that succeed in the end.” As someone who has been knocked down and failed more times than I care to count, this reminded me that everyone messes up, but I, with my determination and through seeking God, could conquer anything.

Want to learn more? Follow Chaz on Facebook and Instagram.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

National Security and Refugees: Do What’s Right

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig, Generation Joshua’s Deputy Director

The views expressed in this post are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Generation Joshua or GenJ affiliates.

Please note that due to the serious nature of the topic this post contains images that may be distressing for readers. Discretion advised.

Did you know that in 1939 over 900 Jewish refugees fled from Germany to the United States on a cruise liner to escape Nazi persecution? “We’re going away,” they said to each other. “We don’t have to look over our shoulders anymore.” But as they neared the Florida coast, US authorities refused to allow the ship to dock. After also trying to dock in Cuba and again being refused, the ship sailed back to Europe, pleading with various countries to grant refuge to the escapees. In the end, the only nation that would allow them to dock was Belgium. It was not long before Belgium was consumed by the Nazi blitzkrieg. 254 of those who had sought safety in America could not escape a second time, and died in the horror we now call the Holocaust.

A Turkish officer stands over a lifeless toddler
who drowned while fleeing from ISIS.
Photograph: Reuters
Today we are facing a new horror like that of the Nazis. A radical group that brokers no opposition has taken control of a war-torn land, and is now methodically killing Christians and others who refuse to submit to their strict Islamic laws. Just a few months ago, when photos of a drowned two-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach swept through social media, the world was confronted with the plight of these thousands of desperate men, women, and children fleeing for their lives from this group that calls itself the new Islamic State.

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, I am seeing many pundits, activists, and friends posting on social media about their concerns for American security. Many are suggesting that the United States consider closing our borders to refugees fleeing ISIS.

While I understand national security concerns, I am troubled by the idea of completely closing our borders to those fleeing ISIS. ISIS is driving people from their homes, enslaving young women, and literally beheading Christians. Like Hitler in the last century, ISIS is eliminating entire societies and ways of life, driving before them waves of innocents who are desperately trying to keep their families, faith, and culture alive.

As far back as the Pilgrims, America has been a place where people have sought relief from religious and political persecution—a lighthouse guiding those in troubled waters to freedom. And beyond our rich national heritage, Christians have the words of the Old Testament and New Testament to inform how we approach those in need.

The Mosaic Law commanded God’s people to show compassion and love to “aliens and strangers” in the land. Jesus rhetorically asked his followers to consider who their “neighbor” actually is. He drove home his message by telling a story with a hero who comes from a different culture and even a different religion—a Samaritan. Jesus showed his disciples that the outcasts are our neighbors, and God clearly commands us to help neighbors who are in need.

Having said this, I also believe the first duty of a government is to protect its citizens.

So how do we reconcile this apparent dilemma?

Let’s begin by looking at some facts.

A broader picture

The home-grown terrorist problem

First, based on what I have seen so far, those who conducted the attacks in Paris can be divided into two groups: those who were “home-grown” and those who came in as “refugees.” Only one of the Paris terrorists appears to have been a refugee (and, according to one report, his passport may have been planted to mislead investigators). So, is the refugee impostor really the problem? Not likely. If he had been stopped at the border, it would have made little difference. The rest of his co-conspirators were already in the country.

Turning away refugees won’t stop the terrorists

Islamic State Flag
Second, would turning away all refugees escaping from ISIS stop determined terrorists? The FBI has warned that ISIS has active members in all 50 states. Six months ago ISIS claimed to have strike teams lined up in 15 states. Yesterday, ISIS purportedly released a video claiming that they are going to attack Washington, D.C. Do they need “refugees” to carry in detailed plans from overseas masterminds? Not in the age of the internet. Do they need “refugees” to bring in weapons? Not in a country with the highest gun ownership per capita in the world. The people who would be most affected by a refugee shutdown would be those fleeing from the Islamic State’s reign of terror.

What are ISIS supporters actually doing?

Third, ISIS recruits are going to Syria far more than they are coming to the west. In the last year, America’s allies have been blocking ISIS—related travel—but not in the way you might expect. The restrictions that work are policies like Australia’s travel restriction to prevent their citizens from traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS. The newly established caliphate (that’s what ISIS claims to be) is drawing followers from around the world. They want to go to Iraq and Syria to be a part of a new Islamic future. Of course, we and our allies don’t want them to go. If they go, they will lend more power to ISIS, execute more Christians, destroy more cultural landmarks, and oppress more people—creating more refugees.

Refugees are trying to get away from ISIS

Refugees from ISIS
Fourth, this fact seems obvious to me, and it is implied in the above discussion, but we all need to be clear on one thing: The Syrian refugees that we are all talking about are those trying to escape from ISIS. Below I will talk about the importance of verifying this, but regardless of possible terrorist plants, etc., the people we are talking about are the victims of ISIS. We must understand that these victims are the refugees being discussed when someone says keep them all out.

Finding a better way

So, what are reasonable alternative policies that are both wise and avoid turning away those in need?

First, we need to establish good policy that both lines up with our principles and reasonably protects our people. Here are two points to keep in mind:
  1. We need to reject the liberal idea that a policy is a failure if something slips through. Liberals often say that a new policy would be “worth it” if it “saves just one life.” That totally depends on the policy. Banning the use of water in swimming pools would probably stop people from drowning in swimming pools, but it would be silly. Not only would it be an unacceptable loss of freedom, but the unintended consequences could include more drownings in lakes and ponds due to fewer people being taught to swim because they don’t have swimming pools. All this to say: stopping all refugees from Syria, for example, might prevent some terrorists from entering the country, but that alone doesn’t make it either just or worth the price.
  2. We need to avoid falling into the trap of letting ISIS dictate our policies. ISIS wants to expand their power and destroy the morale of those who oppose them. This is why they commit gruesome terrorist attacks against civilians. While they likely don’t need to send false “refugees” into the United States, they likely will do so in an attempt to increase national distrust of the real refugees and force us to focus our resources in areas that have lower return. If we refuse to accept those fleeing from ISIS, then the Islamic State gains in two ways. 1) They gain from a PR perspective by proving that the “Crusaders” don’t care about people, and 2) they increase their control over people who no longer have a place to escape from the new caliphate.

The Ellis Island model 

Enough about what we shouldn’t do—what should we do?

Syrian refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015
Before I give my opinion, I want to highlight that I am not claiming this is the only reasonable solution. Nor do I claim that these ideas don’t have challenges or that they are born out of tremendous research. I do, however, believe them to be at least as strong as the claims that we should keep all Syrian refugees out of the country.

Personally, I look back to the time when my great-grandfather entered the United States in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Between 1892 and 1954, millions of people, including refugees from Europe and the Middle East, received their first taste of freedom on the shores of Ellis Island.

On that small spit of land, immigrants would wait in line, be investigated to see if they were a threat to the United States, and be cross-examined to make sure that we knew what they were here for and what they planned to do. Only 2% were denied.

Ellis Island at the turn of the century
I believe that we should establish refugee hubs (like Ellis Island) that keep the process simple while carefully screening those wishing to enter our country. These locations should collect information through an application, interviews, and a simple background research process, submit it to relevant national security agencies for screening, and give refugees basic guidance on possible next steps and basic tools for assimilating into American life. Refugees should present their case showing that they would face serious harm if they returned to their home country (this is my understanding of the current standard required by the law). This process should be completed within a specified time frame, with definite extensions for those whose background checks raise possible red flags. However, if there is no compelling reason to reject the applicant, then their application should be accepted.

Of course, this type of system (or any system) would rely on a diligent executive in the White House. I understand many people’s serious concerns that refugees escaping from Syria are not being carefully examined—to make sure, for instance, that they are not actually from India with a forged Syrian passport and gaming the system. Even more concerning would be those with known terrorist ties who are trying to take advantage of refugee status for evil purposes. These issues will come up no matter what the laws are, and that is why elections matter so much. We need to be educated citizens and talk about these issues with our friends and neighbors to ensure that wise and good leaders are elected to high office.

A vigilant refuge 

I believe an approach like this (or at least upholding these same principles) would uphold the Christian values of protecting the weak and vulnerable, as well as the traditional American values of being a place of refuge for those who face serious persecution. It would also establish a system that vigilantly protects Americans by screening for those with ISIS connections, for example, and serve as a deterrent for those who would seek to do us harm.

Regardless of what the final system looks like, I think that it will be a failure if it does not strive to honor both mandates.

ISIS is evil. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This doesn’t mean that we don’t use armies and weapons. But it does mean that while we are fighting, we fight for love. We follow the light even as it leads us into dark places. We embrace our duty to love the stranger who is our neighbor because what John Quincy Adams said is true: “The duty is ours; the results are God’s.”