Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Center for Rural Strategies president Dee Davis: Rural America has room, need for Syrian refugees

Struggling rural American towns should welcome Syrian refugees with arms wide open, Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, opines for the Daily Yonder. Here is an excerpt from his column:
Dee Davis
"Rural America is falling further behind. Farms don’t need farmers. Manufacturing moved offshore. And the rate of rural kids living in poverty is worse than it is in the inner cities. Here’s a solution. Let’s take in the Syrian refugees. Make them rural Americans. As many as we can feed.

"I live in a small town. The billboard says welcome to Whitesburg, Kentucky, population 1,534 friendly people plus two grouches. We are losing industry, businesses and people with alacrity. We are losing alacrity, too. Small towns often struggle to hang on to critical mass to keep a tax base or to have enough tuba players for the school band. In small towns everyone is necessary. Not even the grouches are expendable.

"We’ve got room here for more folks. Rural downtowns have empty buildings where dime stores and haberdasheries once catered to customer needs. Those can be converted to lofts and exotic food stands. And everybody’s Aunt Dovie has an empty house with a length of bottomland that she has been holding for her boy, if he ever gets tired of being a schoolteacher in Sheboygan or a comptroller in Orlando. The refugees who have fled across continents on foot, in overloaded boats, with their belongings on their backs and infants on their hips are not basket cases. I see people here who will drive around the Walmart parking lot in their pick-up trucks until they can find a spot by the door. Why not welcome some extra pluck, people who have invented ways to survive harsh times? Syrians can rebuild housing stock, turn weeded fields into gardens and help us create economies where economies once resided.

"In the Appalachian Mountains, Syrians, Lebanese, Persians and Palestinians came in throughout the 20th-century booms and stayed through the busts. They were coal miners and merchants and soldiers in the great wars. This nation welcomed strangers then, and strangers pitched in. Steve Jobs’ people were Syrian. eBay’s Pierre Omidyar is Iranian. There is an upside to an open-door policy.

"What is the downside? That these refugees are Muslims? Rural America was built by religious dissenters, and in my town dissent still thrives. We have a breakaway church in the old bowling alley. We have one where the picture show used to be. One in a warehouse. We do have a new legal moonshine distillery in an old tire shop. Maybe teetotaling newcomers would be troubled by that. But then again, not every Baptist is devout when it comes to booze. Sinners walk among us. Maybe we will all meet in the middle.

"Sharing the future with people who want to be here cannot be as daunting as preserving a present that’s straining under the load. The Statue of Liberty’s plaque plainly states: 'The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.' That sounds like a plan. And it’s a more thoughtful rural policy than any we have now."

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