Not often, but sometimes when my father in law is feeling particularly wistful, he will speak of what he remembers. He remembers learning to swim with his sister on the banks of the mighty Tigris. He remembers the bountiful fruit trees that benefited from the rich soil of her banks, bearing the most beautiful and fragrant fruits. Pear trees, grapes, pomegranates. If I close my eyes, it all sounds so sweet, and aromatic and exotic.
He is describing for me his childhood in Iraq.
When they were still young, both my husband’s parents and their families left their homes in Iraq. They left everything they knew, and a land that by all accounts, was beautiful.
Why? Why would you walk away from everything you have and everything you love?
Because of fear. They were Jews. And at a certain point, being Jewish in Baghdad had become a dangerous way of life. It was clear: they were no longer welcome in their own home.
In America, my mother in law went on to study and get her Master’s degree. She became a teacher and for 30 years taught high school English to students at all levels. She literally changed their lives. She cared and worked hard for her students. My father in law went on to join the army. In 1968, he went to Vietnam. His reward? Two permanent hearing aids from the VA, and the opportunity to give back to a country that offered him and his family the opportunity to live freely, in its truest meaning, without fear of being convicted of the crime of being Jewish.
I’m thinking about them as I read the headlines today. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. unless they pass even more stringent background checks than are already in place to vet refugees entering the country. The bill received broad bipartisan support. That this bill will also pass the Senate is unlikely and that Obama will sign it is even more unlikely, but what it does do is spread fear.
Are you scared about what is happening in the world right now? You should be. It is a scary time. I’m scared too. But you should also be mad at the leaders trying to sell you on the idea that a bill like this should make you less scared. The refugee process to enter America is incredibly stringent already. Is it possible someone could infiltrate it? It is. Although it’s equally possible that 19 men, all from countries that the US publicly declares are our allies will learn to fly planes, hijack them, and orchestrate the single largest domestic terrorist incident in recent history. On 9/11, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia (one of our strongest allies in the Middle East), 2 were from the United Arab Emirates, one from England, and one from Lebanon.
Do you know how many 9/11 hijackers were from Syria or Iraq? Zero.
Do you know who most likely helped orchestrate the attack in Paris? A Moroccan born Belgian.
I want to be clear that if such a bill had passed all those years ago, my family would cease to exist. This is not an abstract argument. I would have no husband. I would have no children. My children only exist because this country gave my mother in law a chance to study. It gave my father in law a chance to serve. It gave them the opportunity to make a family. To have a life.
My husband is a first generation American. In every way, my children, my whole existence for getting up in the morning and breathing, is true because many years ago this country opened its doors to his parents and grandparents. Our story is not unique. I cannot imagine what my street, my neighbors, the office or grocery store would look like if suddenly all of the faces, the branches from different trees that grew out of the seed of liberty, if they disappeared. All of us are immigrants. Unless you are Native American, every single one of us came from someplace else. We came seeking the promise of something better. We were fortunate to inherit a legacy of freedom.
Ask yourself, when we go into those countries to “westernize” them, what exactly is the message we are trying to spread? That in a true democracy, you must close borders and spread fear? That you must isolate groups of people based on their religion? That you must persecute them and label them? I mean, I’m no scholar but I’m not sure how vastly different that is, from what my husband’s parents ran from all those years ago.
How does that old saying go? Those that don’t remember history, I’m afraid are destined to repeat it.
We’ve been here before. And I know you are scared. I am too. But whatever you do, understand that excessive measures to stop beleaguered sick, war-torn, women and children from Iraq and Syria from entering our country are unlikely to guarantee us safety. It’s a numbers game. And there are no guarantees.
In the meantime, we have to remember what it is we’ve set out to protect. In his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, FDR tells us exactly what we’re fighting for. He describes how we must persevere to fight for freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Today, all of this is still true. This is what we are fighting for. And this is what refugees seek.
There is an old Benjamin Franklin quote that reads, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Indeed this conceptualization that liberty and safety must co-exist, is one deeply engrained in the fibers of our nation. It is the very basis of our uniquely American understanding, one I can only hope we never forsake, of what it truly means to be free.
Below are some facts about refugees:
And ways to help: