Last weekend, I went to a citizenship ceremony in Austin for some of the newest Americans. The new naturalized citizens were refugees from Bulgaria, Burma, Cameroon, China, Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan and Somalia. After five years, refugees are eligible to take the citizenship test and become U.S. citizens. These fourteen people had done just that. They stretched across the first aisle of the makeshift court with a judge presiding from the stage as they rasied their hands for the oath. Shining, smiling faces. Waving flags. Lifting peace signs. Me, clapping and crying in the audience. Someone asked me, do you know someone up there? Er, no. But then again, I do know them. In a way, I know all of them. I have seen how hard life is as a refugee. The waiting and waiting and waiting for resettlement. Friends trafficked from Eritrea and Congo have told their stories of smugglers, traffickers, organ harvesters, rapists, jails. I've also swam in the clear, warm waters of Cuba. I've walked the green foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. I have tasted the natural beauty and human tragedy of many of their countries. They left behind persecution and violence and corruption, but also mothers and memories and holidays and a land that will never be theirs again. That ceremony was a happy culmination, a symbolic end to so much suffering, but also a severing of identity and family and belonging. Their quest for belonging and acceptance begins anew. They are proud to be Americans, but they are refugees. And America, right now, is not kind to refugees.
A friend recently rudely pointed out that, while I was in Thailand the last few years, I only posted on International Women's Day (so, not rudely, more like accurately). The implication being, I think, that I don't post enough and that I am weirdly attached to random activist holidays. Well, today is world refugee day, and here we are. Perversely, I wish this could be a day to simply focus on the tragedy, humanity and hope of refugees. But it's not even as simple as that any more. I DON'T EVEN GET ONE DAY TO YELL AT PEOPLE ABOUT REFUGEES. When asylum seekers are attacked, when the immigration system is being dismantled, refugees, too will suffer. Are suffering.
The steady drum beat of dehumanization goes like this... "they're not sending their best." Muslim ban. Lower the refugee quota. "Shithole countries." "The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility." Is it even possible to make that decree under international laws and conventions that the US has subscribed to? Oh wait, hold up. We left the UN Human Rights Council? My bad, never mind. Turns out we can do whatever we want. As long as what we want is to slowly chip away at the idea that some people are people. Things are, incredibly, worse than last year.
Let's talk white privilege. It's a misdemeanor to illegally cross the border the first time. A MISDEMEANOR. As a teen and as an adult doing "missions," I was taught to lie on visa applications to places like India and at border crossings to Mexico because I was allowed to break some laws as a Christian, specifically the laws of other countries. The workplace raids to arrest undocumented people haven't included punishment for businesses that employ them. I know (white) Americans who personally employ undocumented people at great personal benefit. This isn't strictly about criminality and security. Even if it was, what a weird and unproductive fixation. Undocumented people commit less crimes than Americans.
Let's talk why people leave home. Poet Warsan Shire -- "no one leaves home unless home chases you." Here are reasons that my friends left their homes: kidnapped by the Taliban, targeted by an IED outside their home in Baghdad, forced into military service and trafficked for organs and sex, their government has raped and killed and burned their villages because they don't have a right to exist. Would you commit a misdemeanor to get out of those situations? I would commit a misdemeanor for FUN.
People who seek asylum or refugees who have proven to have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group deserve to be taken seriously and be protected. They are not criminals. They are due a hearing, a process. Children being separated from parents is so ludicrously, cravenly political I won't even address it. I, unfortunately, haven become used to kids in jail. Week after week, I visited the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok and watched young children grow up behind bars. Their skin grew sallow, the light in their eyes dimmed. We need to end child detention worldwide.
I want today to be about the success of that ceremony on Saturday. About the joy on the faces of those new Americans. I want to honor the patience and sacrifice of my friends awaiting resettlement. I have to believe that there is a place in this world for them. There must be. Because if there is not a place for my friends to escape to, there is only darkness.