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Good Requires Sacrifice and Risk; Immigration of Syrian Refugees is Good

When was the last time you did something good? For a moment, let’s ignore little things and focus on things that are really good. So, I’m not talking about smiling at a stranger, I’m talking about buying lunch for a person experiencing homelessness. I’m not thinking about dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army Kettle but instead donating an amount of money you care about to a cause you care about even more. Keep that experience firmly in your mind as you read this piece.

In my experience, every good thing I’ve done has required a combination of risk and sacrifice. This is what I consistently observe as well.

For instance, Davis Smith launched a company called Cotopaxi. He hopes to make a lot of money for himself and for the venture capitalists who have backed his company. He’s also built the company to do good from the ground up. The company makes environmentally friendly outdoor and travel gear. They source the products and materials in ways that are friendly to the suppliers, especially to low-income providers. They hire recent refugees to come work in their company, often providing them with their first jobs in the United States. And they have committed to donate two percent of revenue to charitable organizations.

He has risked his financial capital and his career—to say nothing of the millions of capital others have invested in the business for which he feels some fiduciary responsibility—on a bet that he can do good in multiple ways using the economic engine of a for-profit business.

Rainer Dahl joined me on a trip to Nepal in 2015. At the time, Rainer was 70 years old. We slept on the floor in a school for a week, trekking out into the Himalayan foothills every day to help villagers install clean, wood-burning stoves to eliminate smoke from inside their homes. Smoke from cookstoves in the developing world is responsible for killing on the order of 6 million people, mostly women and some of their children, every year. We were shocked by the black soot and creosote we found in every home.

Each day, Rainer would climb from home to home in the village. Keep in mind that the Nepali village isn’t a cluster of homes and businesses so much as a collection scattered up and down the side of a mountain. Getting from one to another was a real hike. To each home, he would carry tools, often including a steel crowbar, five or six feet in length, weighing 30 pounds or so.

Rainer would then take the bar and use it to create a hole in the wall for a chimney. After installing the stove and chimney, he would use rocks and an adobe-like cement to repair the wall. Day after day.

I would really have felt sorry for Rainer if we hadn’t been joined by Jim Mayfield, the Founder of CHOICE Humanitarian, the organization that we were working with on the trip. Jim is past 80. He was also sleeping on the floor. Unlike Rainer, he would stay in Nepal. He spent nearly half the year in Nepal in 2015. He is working to eradicate extreme poverty in the country before he dies. It’s a race against time.

Rainer and Jim could each be at home relaxing. They’ve every right and no one would think less of them. Both, however, had chosen that week to make a great sacrifice for the sake of doing good.

Doing any good requires risk and sacrifice. You have certainly used the same calculus to justify good you’ve done. Whether it was donating money that could have paid for a needed home repair or time that could have been used to do something perfectly healthy and normal, like take a yoga class or read great literature. You chose to sacrifice for a person or cause you believe in.

Syrian people in refugee camp in Suruc. These people are refugees from Kobane and escaped because of Islamic state attack. 3.4.2015, Suruc, Turkey

Syrian people in refugee camp in Suruc. These people are refugees from Kobane and escaped because of Islamic state attack. 3.4.2015, Suruc, Turkey

Why, I ask myself, would we expect that allowing a healthy amount of immigration into our country, where 99 percent of us are immigrants or their descendants, should be without risk or sacrifice? In the long run, we know that immigrants make great neighbors because so many of our neighbors are.

How risky are immigrants to America? About 2.6 million of us die every year. Including the deaths from 9/11, 3,264 people died in terror attacks in the U.S. over 20 years, an average 153.2 per year. When I asked Google to calculate 153.2 divided by 2.6 million, Google responded “zero.” In fact, the answer is 0.005892307 percent. In other words, ignoring the fact that we tightened immigration policies after 9/11 and this data includes 9/11, the risk of death from terrorism is tiny. In several years since 9/11, the number of deaths from terrorism was zero. It is not certain that there will be deaths from terrorism in the future, but it is fair to label it a risk of immigration, however small.

Yes, one unnecessary death is tragic, but if we were willing to do whatever it takes to eliminate the risk of one single death, why do we still drive cars? More than 35,000 people died in auto accidents in America in 2015, up almost 10 percent from the year before!  Why do we still use stairs, which kill about 1,300 people every year? The fact is, in virtually every other aspect of life, we accept a far greater level of risk than that associated with terrorism from refugees—and immigration more broadly—without batting an eye.

There is only one question left. Is allowing a few Syrian refugees into our country good? Donald Trump is the grandson of an immigrant who arrived in America penniless. Where would America be without the likes of Albert Einstein and Hakeem Olajuwon? How about former refugee Madeleine Albright, our country’s first female Secretary of State?

Let me quickly concede that I cannot prove that allowing refugees into our country is good, but I wish to add my voice to the many who say it is. Having reached that conclusion, there is no question in my mind that we can and should accept the risks and make the sacrifices necessary.

If you want to keep doing good, as you have done in the past, I urge you to accept the risks of America’s traditional acceptance of refugees from around the world, based solely on their need, without respect to race, religion or country of origin.

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