My husband is a refugee. A refugee whose family sought political asylum in the United States in the 1980’s in the face of the stuff of nightmares. The details are personal, but the bottom line is this: my husband’s life, and the lives of his family were in imminent danger; fleeing the country was the only option. They had two choices: America or Libya. They chose America, and the difference in that choice turned out to be everything.
It’s interesting, this thing about refugees. Syrian refugees. Brown refugees. Refugees from “undesirable” places. Refugees of “undesirable” or threatening religious backgrounds. It’s so easy to hate someone who didn’t get born into your fate.
My husband was young enough when his family escaped from Poland that he doesn’t have an accent. He doesn’t look that different, unless you get up close and personal. He seems just like a “regular American guy” because he is. He’s a dual Polish and American citizen, a process which, despite what you’re probably reading in the news, is not just a matter of “opening doors” for people to pour in. It’s a lengthy, nightmare of red-tape political process most natural born Americans wouldn’t want to wade through in the easiest of circumstances. My husband is more educated on American political policy and history than anyone else I know who doesn’t work in politics or education for a living. And he doesn’t spend a second taking it for granted. Not one.
He was also Catholic and not Muslim, so people don’t usually give him a hard time. But coworkers and new acquaintances have no problem making racist jokes straight to his face.
“Did you hear the one about The Pole?”
Yes, yes we have heard that one actually. And every other one too. Would you like to know where all the Polish jokes come from? They’re Nazi propaganda started by Hitler. Because Hitler hated Poles as much as he hated Jews, and did his very best to completely obliterate them as a people.
What do you do when you want to get rid of a population, to turn other people against them? You start by minimizing their humanity. Talking about all the ways they’re coming after your money, your homes, your children, your freedom, your religion. Dehumanize them, and then it isn’t so hard to hate them.
Do you think it’s any different with Syrian refugees? Not for a minute. A displaced people, fleeing violence and danger, looking to make a better life for their children. Because the thing about refugees is this: the first generation doesn’t live a life a whole lot better than the one they left. Sometimes their new lives are worse. It’s their children, and their children’s children who reap the rewards. My father-in-law is a PhD chemist. My mother-in-law a Juris Doctor. A judge with her own courtroom back in Poland. Would you like to know what they do in America? My father-in-law works in a machine shop and my mother-in-law cleans homes for wealthy people in Beverly Hills. They’d love to go back to Poland, as a whole, safe, democratized country. They left everything behind to make sure my husband, and now his children and mine, have a better life.
The people fleeing Syria would love to stay in their motherland. They’d love to keep their language and customs and friends and family. They don’t want to be fleeing for their lives, in dangerous situations, cold and hungry and unsafe and unsure about whether or not they’ll ever find a home again. And every other group of displaced people from the beginning of time, including your ancestors and mine, have needed the humanity and safekeeping of other countries when things got dangerous.
So all this hate, all this dehumanizing Syrians, or whichever group is popular to hate at the moment, is personal. It’s personal to me, and my husband, and my two dual-citizen children. And if you dare to look back even just a little through your family tree, it’s personal for you too.
Being on the “right” side of history doesn’t afford you the opportunity to decide who lives and who dies. It doesn’t afford you the opportunity to assign humanity to the people of your choosing.
What it does give you is the chance share some of the kindness you and the people before you were given. To share your food, and your home, your jobs, and yes, even your sacred country.
Here’s what my husband, my refugee looks like
- he’s the first one in and the last one out at the office
- he’s the one who’ll take your weekend shift so you can take a vacation
- he’s the guy who will give you his last dollar
- he’s the guy who’d take his shirt off in a snowstorm to give to you
- he’s the guy who regularly takes food out of the fridge to give to the hungry
- he’s the one who offers a couch to someone who needs a place to stay
- he’s the guy who when we were dating and hungry and poor, in the frozen tundra of Idaho, gave his only coat and pair of gloves away to a homeless vet who was freezing
So think a little bit before you defame these “dangerous refugees” who could be you, who were the product of political decisions made by their country on their behalf, the product of terrorism from their countrymen, who could be you in the blink of an eye. And please, for all of us, leave God out of it.