On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump singlehandedly banned refugees from Syria and six other countries from entering the U.S. As Rudi Giuliani openly explained (https://www.rickey.org/donald-trump-wanted-to-ban-muslims-legally-says-rudy-giuliani-video/300704/), in order to avoid the illegality of a ban based on religious and ethnic discrimination, the he unashamely admits that refugees must be portrayed as a “security threat.” Like America’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930s with the excuse that they too would be a “security threat,” Trump’s ban violates our precious values, singles out countries from which no terrorist act has been carried out, and stokes the fear that tears at the fabric of our society.
The people who fear refugees most are those who have never met them.
Sadly, politicians know that, and they can easily fan the flames of those fears and curry favor with supporters when they demonize refugees as terrorists. When they do this, when they ban refugees from our shores, they falsely believe that they can block out the horror of war, chaos, tyranny, and persecution—often created by our own doing– that brought them here. But in fact, they deprive us of inspiration, of models for overcoming great hardship and loss, and of new and enduring friendships that lift us up. They deprive us of the honor of sharing life with these true heroes.
I have had that honor. My husband, Lewis Ames, and I worked with Syrian refugees this past fall in Berlin, and I learned of their heroism firsthand. I met young Syrian men—heroes of resistance– who refused conscription in Assad’s brutal army because they refused to kill their fellow citizens. They joined the flood of other heroes who escaped unspeakable horrors to protect their families and friends from war, torture, and persecution. We learned of the hurdles they were forced to jump in order to leave; how soldiers of all stripes lay siege to their cities and villages, waging campaigns of terror, blocking access to food, water, and medicine. It took tremendous courage and endurance to resist, escape in haste, and bear the great loss that they suffered.
We learned that if these heroes make it to the protection of a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon, they must develop the patience of Job, the biblical character who also lost everything in a single day and long endured pain without a complaint passing his lips. Today refugees often languish for 15-20 years in camps, waiting for the relief of asylum. They already undergo extreme vetting. Thousands line up each day to register with the UNHCR. UN officials interview each person multiple times. Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you know? Officials scan their irises to establish identity. And then they must patiently wait for the chance that they might be in the 1 percent that the U.N. refers to the United States for resettlement. Then Homeland Security officials interrogate them again and again looking for inconsistencies in their narratives. They must patiently and politely answer the same questions over and over. Bureaucrats incessantly run the answers through U.S. security data bases, always looking for red flags. The vetting process takes years. They grow older but their lives are on hold. Their children grow up with little or no schooling. They endure hunger, sandstorms, sweltering heat and freezing cold. Their patience is nothing less than heroic.
Those we met in Germany, however, calculated the odds of resettlement and could not wait. Instead they chose to leave on a treacherous journey to seek permanent refuge. When asylum seekers set off on that search, they embark on an Odyssey, a “hero’s journey.” Like Odysseus, they brave storms, shipwrecks, criminals, loneliness, fear, lawlessness, and harm. On their journey they must live in a world in which they can no longer live as human beings. Forced to sleep on the streets, they are alone, on the move without physical security or legal protection, on the move in a world in which their human rights are not recognized. Both women and men face sexual abuse, theft, and violence along the way. There are no “refugee visas” to allow them entry into countries where rights are conferred. They must travel on foot, by bus, and by sea, entrusting their lives to smugglers, depending only on the kindness of strangers.
Their journey throws them “outside the realm of ‘humanity’[i] They alone must come to recognize their own unalienable rights. To be able to endure, they must come to embrace their own humanity while those around them do not. I am humbled and inspired daily by the tremendous courage that they find in themselves to do so.
They must find that courage because, although they have a “right” to asylum at the end of their odyssey, those countries who promise them refuge deny 99 percent of them legal entry. But those countries are bound by law to accept refugees if they can step across their borders. The latest Trump diktat only exposes and extends this longstanding cynical policy, and he believes his “wall” will seal the borders. Like many of us, the Greek Coast Guard captain in the short documentary 4.1 Miles found this hard to fathom: “They come from war; they escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families in the Greek sea. Losing each other in the Greek sea because of the way they have to cross. Why do they have to cross that way?”
Those who manage to reach the shores of safety where they can finally request asylum face new hurdles. They must now learn patience and draw upon their strength of determination. They jmust find new reservoirs of courage. In Berlin’s Tempelhof camp they live in 16×16 ft. cubicles without ceilings, clustered together in giant airplane hangars with no natural light. They must find language schools, child care, apartments, and jobs in a foreign culture, within a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. They must do all of this all alone in a difficult language that they are just beginning to learn. I saw endless rows of ads for apartments which stated, “No refugees.” Housing discrimination is legal.
The young men, women, and families we came to know demonstrated inspiring resilience; they plow ahead, letting nothing dim the hope that they can finally build a new life in peace and without fear of persecution and death. They are immensely grateful to their hosts who have reluctantly given them refuge. And they are proud of being Syrians….from an ancient culture, and a region where, they tell us, the first wheat was cultivated and the first olive tree was planted. They proudly claim that Damascus is the oldest city in the world. I was honored to become friends with such amazing and intelligent people who show the depth and richness of their civilization in their faces and in their halting German words. Germany is fortunate to be able to integrate them into its society.
Of course they are heartbroken about friends and neighbors who are still trapped at home, as their country is destroyed. In their solitary hours, they are often depressed and terribly homesick. Although they are energetic, cheerful, and polite, we knew that we were always in the presence of people who have experienced great sorrow. Now they just want to be normal people with a normal life–but that is not possible as an asylum seeker. Christian, an Armenian-Syrian, told me that he would have loved to come to Europe as a tourist rather than a refugee, to learn about European civilization, relax, take pictures, and then go home. Now he has no choice but to embrace Europe as his home, no matter how hard that will be. Adnan still can’t seem to believe that one day he was teaching in a high school in Aleppo, and a day later, all that he knew was destroyed and he was on the run. He is withdrawn and traumatized but still moving forward one step at a time. Now when I write to him to ask about his family in Aleppo, he sends me pictures of flowers—-unable to talk about his feelings and trying to think of what is beautiful. And after 10 months he still lives in the Tempelhof airport camp designed as an emergency shelter for a couple of months after arrival. Tariq, who lives in Dresden was beaten three times by right wing xenophobes– who he calls “Nazis”– and even landed in the hospital. It is easy to see both trauma and endurance on many faces, fierce ambition on others , fear and courage on others, and on all faces, happiness and relief when they feel the kindness of strangers—and feel that the strangers might become friends.
Study after study shows that when refugees can speak the host language and develop their skills, they contribute much more to the economy than they take from it. We learned, however, that they contribute something far greater: They contribute to their host society as a source of inspiration. Their courage, patience, resourcefulness, resilience, and determination provide a model of how to live.
I think of my refugee friends at the times I grow impatient on hold with customer service. I think of them when I miss my train and have to walk to a meeting. I think of the long hours they spend learning a foreign language in a foreign alphabet as I struggle to practice the piano for half an hour—something I choose to do in my leisure. Sitting in my cozy home, I think of them, as they walk miles each day to search for an apartment or try to find daycare for their children. I think of the difficulties I have faced in my lifetime and know that they have met and overcome far greater obstacles at the tender age of our students. Their courage has transformed my perspective. I no longer think of them simply as victims but as heroes.
[i] Brad Evans and Zygmunt Bauman, “The Refugee Crisis Is Humanity’s Crisis” The New York Times, May 2, 2016.