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Is lending to refugees, emigrants, or asylum seekers a wise choice?

Edgar S. Martinez, President and CEO of VisionFund International, makes us think again about how we treat displaced people who turn up on our doorstep asking for help.

 

Refugees. Emigrants. Asylum seekers. There are more of them crossing borders today than ever before in history. On foot, by boat, in trucks.

Can you trust them? Can you trust the kind of person who voluntarily leaves their country and comes to yours for a better life?

I can and believe we all should. I for one was born in Colombia, but in 1979 my working-class father took us to California as a means to improve our livelihood, by providing us greater personal safety and access to better education.

I still miss the country of my childhood and the feeling of belonging, but a growing drug trade and increasingly radical political landscape made leaving Colombia for another country a better, safer option.  I am grateful for the courage my father demonstrated in going to a foreign land with no language skills, and with limited resources.

During the first decade of the new millennia, I travelled many times to Venezuela because of my job in banking. I saw first-hand a steady degradation in society. Venezuela used to be a stable country, rich in oil reserves. Now it’s a country that can’t feed itself and is rife with violence.

Is anyone surprised that families are left with no option but to venture to new lands in pursuit of their “American Dream”? Though that dream is as basic as finding food and shelter in the neighbouring countries of Peru, Brazil or my home country of Colombia.

We, and partners like USAID, give loans to people who have had to leave their homes, because loans give them a chance to survive and thrive in the places where they now find themselves.

In Peru, for example, hundreds of the people who received loans were, at first glance, just tired, dusty and weary ‘refugees.’ In fact, they were former doctors, dentists and other medical professionals. The loans allowed them to convert their Venezuelan medical licences to Peruvian ones. Now, many are back at work.

You might think that refugees can’t pay back their loans, or pay them back slower, or that they’re a bad investment. In Uganda, it is the displaced people who paid their loans back faster than neighbours in their host communities.

Refugee. Emigrant. Asylum seeker. These are labels we put on people whose lives have changed in an instant. Who they are as people doesn’t change. They are no less valuable than before they left home.

In the Bible story of the Good Samaritan, many people ignored the injured man lying in the street. The Samaritan saw past the victim, to the human being that lay injured and in need of mercy and assistance. He was a ‘neighbour’ to someone from a different country. He invested ‘whatever it cost’ in this stranger’s recovery.

My own story proves that when we invest in people who flee for a better life, it’s an investment worth making.