Saturday, January 28, 2017

Girls in Books: Empathy and Identity from Immigrants and Refugees

(Image by Jessie Wilcox Smith)
A slow wave of vomit and grief has been rising in me as I learn more and more about the despicable and probably corrupt actions closing access to immigrants and refugees at the borders and airports of the United States—the country that I pledged allegiance to 2,160 times over the course of my public school career.

Part of that public school education was a beautifully in-depth study of the Irish Potato Famine and resulting wave of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1840s. My eighth-grade teachers had a database of real ships rolls, and each student was given the name of an Irish family and charged with writing the diary of one immigrant in that family. We started their stories in Ireland, wrote about the harsh harvest of blighted potatoes, the cruelty of living as serf-labor for the rich English Protestant lords, the decisions of our families to leave, the crossing, the arrival in Boston, and the utter fury and frustration after all the struggle and journey and family members dying on the voyage and leaving the homeland behind, to be greeted by cruel discrimination and further hardship in a United States that firmly stated that “No Irish Need Apply.”

Along with my Irish immigrant—she was a real person and her name was Mary Lahy—I have been thinking of all the other girls in books I grew up with. Before Mary Lahy, I learned about fitting your life into a small trunk and emmigrating from Kirsten Larson—the American Girl character who came across the Atlantic Ocean from Sweden to settle in Minnesota. I learned about some migrants' search for home from Laura Ingalls and her trail of homesteads from the woods of Wisconsin to the prairies of South Dakota. I learned about refugees from Lucy Pevensie and her three siblings who were sent out of London during the Blitz and landed at the Professor’s house and then in Narnia. I learned about Nazis in the back pages of my Molly McIntire books—the American Girl character who lived in the 1940s. I learned about orphans and displacement from Anne Shirley, of Green Gables, about Jim Crow from Cassie Logan in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and about religious discrimination from the very real Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom and fictional Annemarie Johansen. I learned about Japanese Internment from a random pick off the library shelf one school vacation when I was ten—the girl in the book sneaks out of school to fly to California to investigate the past that her family won’t talk about. She—and I—learned about a time when my country rounded up its own people and locked them away in horse stalls with barbed wire and guards.

Underneath all of the adventures and sass and courage and smarts of these girls, there is an undeniable blade of anxiety. As a little girl, the uncertainty and insecurity of all these stories hit me hard...imagining saying goodbye to my stuffed animals, my backyard, the life I knew. It may be shallow and childish, but all those stories did breed a certain empathy that sticks with me today. I look around my comfortable home, filled with all the things I own and love, all the reminders of who I am and how I got to where I am. I run through the long list of contacts in my phone and knowing how rich my life here is with support and love and memory. And I imagine how hollowing it would be to have to flee and leave it all behind, to not know for certain who in my contacts was alive or dead or if I could ever see them again. I would neither lightly nor willingly walk away from the pictures of my family, the bookshelves my father built me, the quilt my mother made me, the dog I’ve raised and loved for eleven years.

The people who we label refugees and immigrants are just people who by need or force have left their familiar belongings and lives to come elsewhere. I often feel that I can only really make sense of myself in the context of New England, and I have to will myself to not imagine what sort of tragedy it would take for me to leave this landscape. But, I am not different or special in my love for my home. Others who love their land just as I do mine have been forced to leave for reasons of safety and survival, for a lack of opportunity to stay where they would rather be. It makes my heart hurt, and hurt the more for knowing that I am merely lucky to only imagine and not experience this loss, so far. 

To go through the fear and struggle and grief, to rip your life apart and out of context, to parcel up only the most portable and essential of all that you own and love, to be adventurous and brave, and forge on to a new place, and then to be met by the corrupt discrimination and cruelty of President Trump’s recent actions on immigration…this is the worst and ugliest side of American history and identity.

We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Some people came willingly, freely to what has become America, seeking freedom for their faith and opportunities to make better lives than the crowded and oppressed landscapes of home. Some people came here stolen and shackled, only to be further abused, and to have that abuse grafted into laws. Some people came here long before everyone else, and were pushed aside by tides of newer immigrants, and made to live like refugees in their own lands. From any angle of American identity that I can understand, it goes against the marrow of my European-descended immigrant bones to deny others, any others, access to this land. It is particularly cruel to deny this when people have left their homes behind in fear and war and violence.

I don’t know how to combat this latest action of the President and his White Supremacist strategist. The usual channels of democracy feel more and more insufficient. People say we have been made for these times, but the infrastructure of democracy is reminding me of the flotsam and jetsam of a bridge broken and pummeled by sudden hurricanes and floods. I call my Senators and Congresswoman each almost daily, asking them to exercise human decency in immigration policy and to look deeper into the President’s business ties to countries on the “safe” list. I donate to six different groups that serve the interests closest to my soul. And I am looking at the door of my guest room in the apartment I share with two other women and wondering what it would be like to offer that room to someone in need of shelter. Because while I am calmly drying my dishes, sitting beside a heater with a cup of tea and tears running down my face as I type this, real people are living out every fictional scenario my girls in books taught me to care about.

None of this is normal. And those of us who love the freedom and democracy and immigrant legacy of this land cannot ignore what is happening.

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