Last week President Trump enacted an Executive Order banning the entry of refugees for the next 90 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely, under the guise of a need to further vet them. Since my kids go to a school with a large refugee and immigrant population, I have some observations I’d like to share. By no means are my observations and experiences exclusive. Ask any teacher or parent whose kids attend a school with a high population of English learners like mine do, and you’ll hear similar stories. One of the things that impresses me all the time about these type of schools is how quietly and efficiently teachers and administrators go about servicing the children enrolled. Let’s be clear as well that not all of these teachers are of the same political mindset. I know of teachers who voted for Trump, yet are at the forefront of advocating and caring for these children. We need to never lose sight that this issue isn’t about politics; it’s about humanity.
We also need to make a distintinction between refugee children and immigrant children. The two are often lumped together, especially when politically convenient. Immigrant children are brought here by their families in search of a better life. They are from families that choose to come here. Refugee children are from families that are fleeing their home country. It’s two separate populations with two separate sets of needs and challenges. Politicians will tell you the ban on refugees is for our safety, but the odds of being killed in an attack by a refugee are less than winning the lottery jackpot.
A couple years ago, I got a couple of education reformers to tour my children’s school, Tusculum Elementary, with me. They’d been talking a whole lot about “failed schools” and I wanted them to see first hand the quality of instruction children at a so-called failing school were receiving. After touring several classrooms, they admitted that it was impressive. “But I’d like to see the other children,” said one of them.
I was puzzled. “These were all extremely well behaved children. I’d like to see the discipline problems.” I just shook my head. You see, before these children got to Tusculum, many of them were already taught a very hard lesson about what acting out and getting yourself noticed meant.
Many of the children at my kids’ school spent time in refugee camps before being allowed to come here. And I’m not talking about a weekend; I’m talking about years while they navigated the system to secure relocation to the USA.
Going through that process has taught them the value of appearing benign and doing as you are supposed to since anything different could result in disaster. One wrong move and you get sent to the back of the line or worse yet, returned to where you came from. Which in some cases means certain death. Despite what politicians may tell you, the vetting process is long and intense, with many places where a family can be removed from the process or denied entry.
Much has been made of the potential for terrorist infiltration into the refugee population. But as Lavinia Limón, a veteran of refugee work since 1975 and the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says, “I think I can count on one hand the number of crimes of any significance that I’ve heard have been committed by refugees. It just hasn’t been an issue.” That being said, are all refugees free from terrorist influence? Absolutely not. There are students in my kids’ classes that have family or former neighbors that are members of, say, ISIS or some other terrorist organization. It is to be expected based on where they come from. But this is an opportunity to counter those influences. To demonstrate that you can be safe without a joining an organization and that there is a better way to live. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that religous freedom is real and that America is not at war with any religion.
Let me put it in terms that might be more familiar. If you grew up in South Central LA during the 90’s, odds were that you knew members of either the Crips or the Bloods. Odds are equal that they probably tried to recruit you. If you were worried about your safety or your family’s safety, you probably listened to what they had to say and tried at the very least to retain friendly relations. It’d be foolish to just outright reject their overtures, as the consequences could have a dangerous effect. The biggest reason you may not have joined was the ability to see an opportunity for a better life. The truth is that joining a gang is a decision that only a person with no hope for the future can make. These terrorist groups are in reality no more than sophisticated gangs with access to the means to carry out deadly attacks. They are defeated in the same way that regular street gangs are defeated – by showing people a better life and thats what our refugee resettlement program attempts to do. To deny terrorist groups access to potential members by showing them the promise of a better life.
I’m sure many of the people poised to relocate to the United States have rebuffed ISIS and others repeatedly. What President Trump’s Executive Order last Friday did was essentially erase that vision of a better life for them. Imagine that you were ready to leave Yemen or Syria and start your new life in the United States. You’d spent the last two years jumping through hoops and doing everything asked of you and even above that, surviving. Then out of nowhere, you get word that all relocations have been halted for four months with no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to relocate after that time. What would you do? Would you trust that in four months you’d be allowed to relocate, or would you do whatever necessary to keep you and your family safe? Hope has been taken from you and you have to make decisions based on the limited options in front of you. If joining ISIS – if that were a possibility, that is – meant that you and your family would have a higher level of security and comfort, wouldn’t membership in a terrorist organization suddenly become more attractive than the unknown? Remember, philosophy is a luxury for those who have established food and safety.
Anyone who has ever worked with children can attest that children that feel stereotyped often embrace that stereotype. I think the same holds true for all people. Treat me like a thief and eventually I will become one. Treat me and my religion as being preordained for terroristic intentions and eventually the intentions may become reality. This is how a ban backfires and makes us less safe. I very much agree with the words written in the blog Jason’s Connection where he talks about the Frankenstein effect: No one starts out as the monster we meet. As a society, we build our own monsters. I am not a monster. Neither was Frankenstein’s creature. We are merely people and beings with fresh wounds and terrible experiences.
An important role of the president, possibly the most important one, is to set the tone for the country. The tone being set right now is one of hostility and intolerance. My kids’ classmates and their families, both refugee and immigrant families, are rightfully frightened. They have no idea if they are going to be removed from the country or placed in internment camps.
Supporters of Trump’s legislation like to say that if you are here legally, you have nothing to fear. Well, that’s fine and good if you come from a place where the government governs by law. Unfortunately, many of our refugees and immigrants come from places where the police are more feared than terrorist organizations. Laws are applied at the whim of the police and family members sometimes just disappear. What evidence do our refugees and recent imigrants have that things are different here? And how is a couple years’ experience supposed to trump a lifetime of experience? As someone who, in his younger days, has had handcuffs applied for nothing more than being too loud and not properly responding to a police officer, I can testify that feeling never goes away. Too often we think that just because we don’t have fear, neither should others. That just because the experience doesn’t exist for us, it doesn’t exist at all.
I am the son of a refugee. During World War II, my mother fled to Germany from the Ukraine as a refugee. As a kid, we lived in Germany and toured the country extensively. The only city I never saw was Berlin. That was because my mother had a deep-seeded fear that if we went there, she would be taken back to the East. It didn’t matter that her brain told her she was now an American citizen; her heart would not let go of that fear almost 50 years later.
We continually fail to grasp the concept that terrorism is borne out of how people are treated. We think we can bomb people back to caves and build walls to separate us and there will be no consequences. It baffles me. I mean, think about your own personal life. Imagine if your neighbor suddenly put up a huge fence adjacent to your property. When you went and talked to him about it, he only brought up your negative impact on his property refusing to acknowledge any positive influence. Would this strengthen your relationship, or would you begin to build resentment and overemphasize every perceived slight? You might even take the attitude that if you think you can keep me off your yard, I’ll show you, and encourage detrimental behavior towards his property. The attitude grows out of the feeling that since you show no desire to be a good neighbor, why should I? How much would insult be added to injury if that neighbor also presented you a bill for that fence?
On the wall of our living room hangs the words of Maya Angelou:
I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today,
life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:
a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.
I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents,
you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.
I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.’
I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands;
you need to be able to throw some things back.
I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart,
I usually make the right decision.
I’ve learned that even when I have pains,
I don’t have to be one.
I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.
People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.
I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
They are powerful words that we read often and try to incorporate them into our daily lives. It wouldn’t hurt if, as a country we did the same.
As adults, we often approach the thoughts and conversations of children with a high degree of hubris. We think they only form their opinions based on what we tell them. Guess again. They discuss their home lives with each other with as much complexity as we do. It broke my heart recently when my daughter chimed in from the back seat after school one day that she’d figured out why her friend was being bad all the time. “Daddy, it’s because he has a mean father who drinks beer all the time.” Her solution, though, made me smile: “I’m just going to be his friend because he likes me, and I think being his friend is the best action.” It’s called empathy and it’s something we could all do with a little more of.
My children see the television and they see the President, who they respect as the leader of their country, say over and over “America First.” My daughter asked me, “What does that mean?” I told her that he’s saying we will put American interests first when dealing with other countries. I asked her, “Is that how you interact with your friends? Do you put your interests first? Or do they put their interests first?” “No,” she replied, puzzled, “Valentino, Jennifer, and I just play. We talk. We take turns. That’s weird, Daddy.” Yes, it is weird, my dear. She seems to grasp what adults can’t – we all live in one small, crowded world that we need to figure out how to share.
My son has become the de facto welcoming agent for his class. Whenever a new child comes into the class with a limited English vocabulary, I’ve been told he takes it as his personal mission to make them feel welcome. He’ll often matter-of-factly tell me about a new child who doesn’t speak English whom he has become friends with. I ask him how they communicate. He just looks at me like that question makes less sense than his friend’s native language. Somehow, my son has managed to do what many of us adults seem incapable of: to cut through the differences and the barriers to find commonality for the benefit of both. I can’t say enough thank yous to his teachers for modeling and supporting that behavior.
Looking at the news now and going forward, I don’t know what is going to happen. I have a great deal of trepidation and am searching for my way of pushing back and making sure that the welcoming face of America is preserved. I take reassurance from the sight of my fellow Americans taking to the street with the same goal. My dear friend Mary Holden has written an excellent piece about channeling your rage. As she says, “Americans are rising up. We are standing up against alternative facts, hatred, intolerance, and injustice. We are determined not to let evil win. We will resist. We will overcome.” It’s not just happening in Washington either. Raleigh, New York, Seattle, Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul, along with others, are all raising their voices.
I have a friend who questions the value of protests. He tends to think in terms of elections being the place to make your voice heard. I disagree. I think it’s important that politicians don’t feel untouchable just because they’ve secured the position. We must always serve as watchdogs. We must raise our voices whenever we feel that our community’s policies are not reflecting our community’s values. Some wish the voices would quiet down so they don’t have to think about what’s happening. Maybe because they feel powerless. Maybe because they feel overwhelmed. Or maybe because they agree with the policies. Joining with others to raise your voice reaffirms beliefs as well as informs others. My family and I will be raising our voices. For us, it’s not just ethical. It’s personal.
We are a country founded on the principle of always offering a better way of life for immigrants and refugees. That principle comes with a certain amount of risk, and in order for America to remain as safe as possible, we must always serve as that shining beacon on the hill, best summed up by President Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”