When I was around 10 years old my language arts teacher asked us to draw a letter from a hat. Our task was to study and present a vocabulary word that started with the letter we picked. I picked X. My classmates simultaneously groaned in empathy and sighed with relief. I pored through the dictionary, determined to choose a really big word that would be foreign to my classmates’ ears.
Little did I know that 37 years later I would see this word peppered in the media and sear the souls of (mostly) Republican “leaders” across the country. Little did I know I had discovered the word and sentiment that underscored much of my formative years.
My word was XENOPHOBIA.
“intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”
In the years since 9/11 I’ve been told on more than one occasion to “go home” or “go back where I came from,” to which I cheekily answered, “You mean Virginia?” My family recounts similar stories. An aunt who was born in America, in the Heartland no less, faced insults hurled at her family too. American educated, brand name colleges, impressive curricula vitae, it matters not. These xenophobes see our brown skin alone. Never mind our Southern twang, American accent, Southern vernacular. Never mind our western clothing. Never mind the white friends that surround us. As if all that makes a difference anyway. As if we lob those trappings to prove our worth and Americanness.
Let me tell you why I’m both hurt and pissed about the anti-refugee mentality that Trump-loving wall builders are waxing on about. I know these people, these refugees who are to you, just faceless freeloaders in a sea of brown skin. You spit on these fellow human beings for being different, instead valuing the perceived safety of white, Christian faces. You spew the words “refugee” and “immigrant” with a snarl, your fear and judgement palpable. Yet you pay no mind to the data, the facts, the white men wielding weapons terrorizing fellow Americans in our own country. Your ilk reeks of hypocrisy.
I’ve sat next to refugees in language classes, and my mother opened our home to them. We shared birthday parties and holidays. We broke bread and learned about each other’s cultures. I know their stories. I know what they sacrificed, what they left behind. They are human, like us. They have experienced the unimaginable and have no concept of the comfortable life you are so quick to judge from. You point your manicured fingers while they work theirs to the nub trying to eke out a new life on foreign soil, alone. Many refugees are educated, productive members of society; they are not parasites. Teachers. Doctors. Nurses. Professors. Lawyers. Mothers and Fathers. And there’s Kareem, the engineer.
My 10-year old son just completed a rather clever homework assignment. His teacher asked parents to randomly yell that it’s time to evacuate. Students were instructed to grab their backpacks and had four minutes to fill them with necessities as if they were a Jewish child fleeing their home during WWII. My son packed a few items of clothing, first aid kit, jacket, notebook, toothbrush, blanket, and a book. The lesson was about the Holocaust and WWII, but it applies to the plight of refugees today too. Our dinner conversation naturally turned to the parallels of both experiences. Even my son gets it. You might say he has the benefit of childhood innocence. I say he has the benefit of a heart.
Refugees are fleeing a world so oppressive and violent that our only inkling of what they face is Hollywoodized. And even that seemingly hyperbolic end of times depicted on the screen pales to what their reality is. I have been jeered at and assaulted because people thought I, as a brown skinned foreigner, had no place in their country. I know, if just a tiny bit, of what refugees face and fear. You’re spewing hateful xenophobia with every judgement and taunt. You claim to care for the welfare of our citizens, yet you cut funding for Medicaid and education whilst remaining loyally beholden to the NRA. Where exactly do your actions demonstrate caring about our welfare? I’m talking to you, Pat McCrory.
We accomplish more with love than hate. Fear spirals us down, while generosity lifts us up. We sit on the precipice of history. America, let’s be on the right side here. Be human. Be compassionate.Celebrate your good fortune by being kind, open minded, gracious, and generous. This is what peace means in all religions.