Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refugees and Pilgrims

When I was little, we read Barbara Cohen's book Molly’s Pilgrim every fall. It was a Thanksgiving picture book and came trotting home from the library with my mom, my sisters or I every November for many years.
Molly is a little girl in an elementary school class. For Thanksgiving, the class is making a large scale diorama of a Pilgrim village. Each student is told for homework to take a clothespin and make a little Pilgrim doll.
Molly’s Jewish immigrant mother loves this assignment and makes Molly’s doll for her. The doll does not have a dark dress and white collar. There is no cute little white hat or apron. Instead, the doll is brightly colored with scarves and shawls, like she dressed out of rags in a hurry. The mother explains that of course the pilgrim lady looks like her—they are the same.
Molly hates this and feels that it is the wrong answer, but takes the clothespin lady to school anyway. She is bullied by some other girls in the class, all of who have perfectly predictable Pilgrim clothespins. Some are wearing fancier cloth than a Pilgrim would be, but the colors, the shapes, the style is recognizable and correct. This being a children’s book, where endings are tidy, the teacher naturally loves Molly’s odd-ball doll, and explains that this is what pilgrims truly were—outcast immigrants searching all the world for a place to be safe and free to live and worship as they pleased.
Thanksgiving is a holiday of immigrants, grateful to be together and to be free. It is a day of being thankful for surviving, for coming together. Add in that it was one of the all too few high points in Native American and interloping European relations and it does celebrate a beautiful and unique set of values. Values of grit, survival, freedom, unity, acceptance, abundance, and sharing. At our best, as a country, we can remember that we were born from those ideals.
We are not at our best. We are shuttering borders to refugees who truly need solace from the sort of daily horror and violence that has never been known on this soil.
Since the attacks in Paris, I have had a small pang in my chest. I am afraid. What the fear feels like is similar to the horrible creep of dread I felt last spring—lying awake every night for two weeks, afraid that the phone would ring at night and the hospital would say that my father had died.
In the end, of course, he did. But for all that I wish he were not gone, there was a hollow relief in no longer waiting for that worst to happen to my family.
I feel this dread again listening to the news of violent hunts for suspects in Europe, for France being in a state of war and Russia joining in a coalition, for the root causes of the refugee crises in the first place. People everywhere are living with this sort of fear and anticipation that the worst is about to happen, with the nightmare solid sick that the worse is happening. It feels selfish for me to have this sort of nebulous dread and sadness lingering in my heart. But, there is enough rage and grief in this world without me beating myself up for worrying that this beautiful world is being ripped to shreds.
Living with fear, I find, feels a bit like standing in the back of a moving pickup truck, or in an elevator that has just dropped. Everything feels a bit off kilter, and you reach out to regain balance.
And that is what I want to do with bad news, with fear. I want to reach out and hold on, to bring my people, any people together and make them warm and safe.
Which seems to be the direct opposite of locking borders and denying visas and establishing lower and lower quotas of refugees, all with higher and higher degrees of paperwork. I do not know how we can keep all violent extremists out of the country. I do not think we can, and we are throwing thousands of real babies out with fear-of-terrorist-bathwater.
These denials of human need are based on fear, based on wanting to keep what we know and love safe and alive. I know that. But, it will not work. And I believe that willful inability to interact with truth—the world is fraught with the violence of different beliefs, of intentions misunderstood, of resources too growing more and more scarce—is akin to burying our heads in the sand or not speaking Voldemort’s name.
A few Facebook friends posted earlier this week that Anne Frank and her family had been denied entrance to the United States at the start of World War II. Similarly, there were ships of Jewish citizens who fled Germany in fear and sailed around the world, willing to take any port in a storm. No port would have them, because some of the passengers were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.
So, for the suspected or possible crimes of a few, hundreds of people were denied help and doomed to persecution, concentration camps, and death. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and mortifying. And we are supposed to learn from the past, from our mistakes. We must.
The world will never be perfect, or perfectly safe. I walked by a coffee shop yesterday and looked at the tables outside, knowing that people sat down at tables just like that in Paris a week ago and were mown down by machine guns. However, I’ve also sat at a café in a tiny mountain town and had a logging truck plow into the sidewalk very very close. Several of us could have been killed.
We cannot control the actions of others. What we can do, and what does allow the fear to bleed into a useful, thoughtful empathy, is control our own actions. If it were American refugees streaming into Syria, what sort of welcome would you want?
It is a mistake to believe that the world can be only one way. So, instead, let us catch our balance by reaching out and holding on to each other, even if, especially if we don’t all look alike. If Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, then this act of care, of welcoming is the American thing to do. Beyond that, it is the human thing. In combatting inhumane-seeming actions, holding fast to our humanity is the most crucial tool of all.

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