the land of the free7:07 PM
I'm not here to point fingers, to say what's wrong or right (psychologically speaking that's something we start working on as toddlers so at this point when it comes to most adults, as they say, the "ship has sailed"). I'm here to share some stories. Perhaps to some of you stories don't matter. To me - it's the only thing that matters. When all is stripped away, when your very body is confined our stories are all we are left with, the only thing we truly "own." But I'm not going to tell you my family's story. Though my parents fought for our green cards and eventually our citizenship with blood, sweat and tears we came to this country because my father had a PhD, because he was already "gainfully" employed and probably because his vocation was a pastor. We left everything behind - my third grade art project that won first prize, our beloved cat, heirloom china and wedding presents, our favorite toys, family, friends, our schools and church. We arrived in JFK on a cold December evening with nine duffel bags that contained clothes, some bedding, books and toiletries. But we weren't refugees. We weren't fleeing torture. We didn't leave in fear for our lives. And yet the experience aged my parents a good ten years.
What I would like to share with you is the stories of refugees that employed my parents for close to five years to represent them, to work with them and to bring them to safety. Working for my mother's immigration company was my first "real job." On weekend afternoons I would take my dad's red Sony tape player to his office, open up a blank page in Word, pop in a gray tape with a white label on which was neatly written the name of the client who's story it was my job to transcribe and then to translate. I would shut the door of the tape recorder, adjust in my seat and press play. And for the next two, often three and even occasionally four hours I would listen and type, listen and type. I would type out sentences that said "And then they threw the Bible in my face, leaving bruises." I would type sentences that said "Renounce God!!! they shouted as they brought the iron closer to my face. I would start praying as they held the iron down on my cheek until my skin began to burn." I would type out sentences that said "Exhibit A: Severe burns to the hands and forehead" or "Exhibit F: Fracture of the left clavicle." I would type and type and type, occasionally wiping the tears off of the keyboard so I could continue without my fingers slipping on the keys.
But you know what broke my heart more than anything? Not the actual horrific acts themselves but the brave, courageous and matter of fact way that these poor souls dictated or wrote out their stories, so determined to have them "believed" or to have their story "trusted." They wrote about themselves the way a coroner would, or a police officer, someone altogether emotionally detached. They wanted to remain unemotional for the fear of having their account questioned. And yet nestled in there, in between all of the medical jargon and factual information were cries of pain, anguish, despair and fear. It was palpable. It never felt like any other tape or just a stack of papers, it felt as if I were handling something so amaranthine, something fragile and sacred.
I never met these individuals. It was always my parents who accompanied them to the hearings but I would grow attached to them. I would think about them often, about the families they left behind, their dreams and the happy children they perhaps once were. I would always worry about their "verdict," praying that each and every single one of them would get that big rubber stamp, would be told "welcome." Of course not all of them were. I would listen in to all those teary phone calls between my mother and them, sometimes tears of joy and sometimes tears of heartbreak. And often at night I would lie awake in my room that I had painted a pale lavender and wonder about the ones that got sent back... Would they again have hot irons placed on their foreheads? Would they be killed? And if not would they ever feel joy, security and hope again?
I didn't seem right - that I was here in "the land of milk and honey" and they were there swathed in fear and destruction. Why me? By all accounts I didn't "deserve" this life. I didn't deserve safety, hope and happiness any more than they did. In fact, if anything I probably deserved it less. I was such a coward, such a privileged child compared to these men and women. But I was here... and they were there.
At times like these the world makes even less sense than before. Some days it feels like an alternate reality. I left my home country as the tide of mass xenophobia, nationalism, racism and demagoguery began to creep closer and closer to shore. With each passing day the tide gained strength and vigor and beat down the clumps of those standing up for others. It beat them and beat and beat them. Some quietly packed their bags and left. Many that didn't would eventually be gunned down, often in broad daylight. The waves raged and roared until the clumps turned into solitary grains of sand that would simply be washed away, silently. And the dark sea covered everything for it got what it always wanted - respect, obedience... silence. The clumps were never big enough to over-power the waves. A wave can only be subdued with another, bigger wave. And now it's too late, everything has been infected with hatred, selfishness, greed and cynicism.
I was too young then, I'm not now. And so I'm doing the only thing I can - standing up for others. Not for "what's right," just OTHERS. I'm not professing to know what's right or wrong, I'll leave that discussion to people much more intelligent than myself. I just know that I am not "the least of these" yet many are. I just know that a life like my own, a small, insignificant life, matters little in the grand scheme of things and I just know that the only thing that does matter is what I do "unto the least of these." So I stand up for them. Because they can't. Because they aren't safe or privileged. Because that five year old at Dulles airport with bloodshot eyes from what must have been hours upon hours of crying needs us. Because the media isn't "twisting" the cries you can hear with your own two ears, the panic and fear stricken faces that you can see with your own two eyes and the way your heart breaks over all of this. It's not right or wrong, it's not politics, it's people. People needing help. Whatever path you feel your heart urging you to follow I hope you do. Because I believe that deep down in all of us is that little kid that doesn't see political party, race, color, ethnicity or sex... just a person.