Still Harping on Refugees

On the first day of class this term, I had my Advanced English as a Second Language class watch Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they couldn’t understand a large part of it, especially his many poetic and scriptural references, they still responded to the cadences and emotion of his speech. Later, they read a transcript.

The next day, I went for coffee with 3 Syrian women. Recent arrivals, they came 6 months ago through another Middle Eastern country, where they left their husbands to earn money while they came on alone to seek asylum.* They are struggling with a new culture, a new language (although all 3 speak decent English), with getting kids adjusted to new schools, all while adjusting to being single mothers. It’s a lot to deal with, and they are very grateful for overtures of friendship.


picture from  Credit: LWYang, Flikr.

One wanted to talk about the speech. “Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me. “And instead we all died. Why?” She was talking of the protests of the Arab Spring, and how their president’s reaction in gunning down those who spoke out against him was what sparked this bloody, brutal war that has been going 5 years with no end in sight. I could not answer her question. Why indeed? The Syrian situation is a quagmire, and while speedy involvement may have made sense, that moment is long past, swept into a maelstrom of ISIS and Assad and Aleppo and the Turks and the Kurds and the Iranians and the Russians.

I thought about our own history as Americans. Ironic, isn’t it? We love freedom fighters when they’re us, our own illustrious ancestors, but not when they’re anybody else. History as past and decided, with lines drawn sharp and definite, is one thing, but history as its being written is another, messy and blurry with sides that are sometimes indistinguishable. I believe, though, that we can make the right choice, figure out where we want to be whether or not history sides with us. And that is on the side of the civil rights marchers and the refugees, the ones marginalized and powerless.

“Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me.

“And instead we all died. Why?”

The news is not all bleak. In the span of 3 days, I heard of 2 different incidents involving different women in different stores, both of whom wear the hijab. Both were approached by strangers, who assured them of their welcome and hugged them. One, a sensitive soul, cried great gulping tears of gratitude. She is still crying days later when she tells me about the 2 women who told her, “Just because one person says they don’t want you doesn’t mean we all feel this way” and then hugged her. “They had to find kleenex for me because I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. She joyfully recounts the tale to her family back in Iraq, along with stories of protest marches and stinging editorials and even my Facebook posts, proof that not all Americans are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, proof that compassion can be found in unexpected places.

Tomorrow in class we’re having a Valentine’s Day party, 3 days after the fact. This is partly because Fridays are just good party days. I have told them not to bring heavy foods, as experience has taught me that these parties at 10 a.m. tend to include enormous platters of rice and chicken dishes, fried meat pastries, and much more. “Just finger food,” I urge. “Small things. Cookies. Or nothing. You don’t have to bring anything.” On Wednesday I already came home with a dozen red roses wrapped in tulle and 3 plates of food, all gifts from students.

We will put our chairs in a circle and talk, awkwardly balance pink paper plates and heart-covered napkins, bought 50% off after the day itself. We will discuss, with small corrections of grammar, the various things that have brought us to this place–a mix of professors and housewives and teachers and electrical engineers and scuba divers and people who list “cleaning” as a hobby.  Not all of us are refugees according to our passports, but we are all looking for friendship and a sense of community. So we will struggle forward, learning acceptance, offering friendship.

*Asylum seekers can’t work until their cases get to a certain point in the process. It typically takes about 6 months to get a work permit. Imagine having to survive 6 months without an income!


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