17 November

When Better Angels Call: Signing Up To Help Syrian Refugees

by Jon Katz
When Better Angels Call
When Better Angels Call

The Better Angels are calling me in this season of rage and victimization,  I’m getting underway, I called the U.S. Committee For Refugees And Immigrants last night, and I volunteered to help the few Syrian refugees that have been admitted to this area. Maria is also volunteering.

That is my response to the election, my way of going forward, my disengagement from the muck and the mire. Arguing on Facebook is not my path.

Maria and I are willing to do whatever we can do to be helpful to this weary and traumatized people, none of whom has been accused or convicted of committing a single terrorist act or other crime in America, according to the FBI. I cannot wait to invite them to our farm.

There are more than 90 Syrian refugees in my area, I am eager to meet some of them.

I told the USCRI that I could help in any number of ways, from sponsoring refugees to teaching them English (I am a literacy volunteer), to driving them to job interviews and doctors appointments, to writing about them, photographing them, doing some therapy work with Red – they are under terrible pressure right now.

Maria has enormous skills to bring to this project, she is going to India to teach the victims of sex trafficking how to make potholders, she is eager to teach and welcome these new Americans and help in any way she can.

These are the people who 27 American governors have said are too dangerous to be admitted to their states, and should be deported back to Syria. In Texas, now an open carry gun state where college students can bring their weapons to class, they are terrified of these battered women and children, they don’t wish to let a single one in their state.

I spoke to one refugee already, she is the mother of three small children, she was separated from her husband and third child a year ago – he was severely burned in a bombing attack and remains in Syria seeking treatment – and she works several jobs to support her family.

Her husband, a bookkeeper, is trapped in Syria with their asthmatic child.

She is terrified once more because if Donald Trump does what he promised to do, he will not permit any refugees to enter the United States from Syria while he is President, because it is a country with terrorism. She wonders if she will ever see her husband and son again.They are in great danger, it tears at her heart to think of them stranded in that Hell.

Last week, she was in an upstate mall with her daughter and four teenaged boys followed her, taunted her, demanded she take the scarf off of her head and urged her to “go home.” Fellow shoppers intervened and shooed the boys off, but it was frightening for her.  She knows there are many good people in America, she has met many. “But this is not the America we dreamed of in those awful days” she said, “I pray every day our family can be reunited.”

In the conflict, she and her husband lost their home and savings. Now they may lose one another, they may lose everything else.

It is time for me to speak up and get moving and use my blog and talent to persuade anyone I can that this awful view of refugees is a great and profoundly un-American wrong. It is not acceptable, it is not just politics. These refugees are not terrorists or dangerous aliens and invaders, they are us. A few different ticks in history, and it could just as easily be me, desperate to get to America, where people were not persecuted for who they happen to be.

The refugee experience is  deeply embedded in our civic DNA and in the lives and souls of almost all of us, in our history and institutions and greatness.  I am the descendant of immigrants, brave and resourceful people who underwent incredible hardship to get to this country, a place of welcome and safety and liberty for them. To me, that is the core of what America is about, not the slamming of doors, but the opening of doors.

For generations, we have been reciting, worshiping and basking in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus, etched on that remarkable statue in New York harbor:

Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!,cries she, with silent lips,

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We used to recite this poem in my elementary school, I wonder if anyone still remembers it. Who are these refugees, if not the homeless and tempest-tost, the tired, yearning to be free? Vote for who you wish, I think, but wasn’t this the point of the long and hard fight for the world’s first democracy?

To me, these are not cynical words, clichés to be dismissed, they are our national faith and sacred obligation .For me, they are not an argument.

To reject them is to reject our better angels and drive them away, to usher in a darker world of conflict and selfishness and shrinking vision. We can’t shut the world out, we live in it.  This country did not become great by turning its backs on the wretched  refuse of those teeming shores.

I am not interested any longer in the Election/Donald Trump Hysteria, or in  joining the raging arguments and gloomy forecasts, or in denigrating his supporters. I am not looking to wear any pin.

My task is to look inside at what I care about and this is the  issue that goes to the heart of me – the demonization of these suffering people, the truest victims, the awful injustice of treating them in this way.  This goes deep into the moral soul, it says so much about who we are.

I don’t care who voted for who, nor do I believe that our world or way of life is coming to an end, or that the Nazi’s are heading for the capital. I have no idea what Donald Trump is going to do, and I would be surprised if Donald Trump knew either.

The America I love is truly a land of liberty and generosity, and I have to decide just who I am and what kind of country I am living in. I dedicate this to my own spirit, but also to my grandmother, who saw so much of her family slaughtered  and persecuted and who clung to this idea of the golden doors, the country of justice and opportunity.

It saved her life. Perhaps mine too.

For her, opportunity was a modest thing, a small Mom and Pop store, and a tiny flat for her husband and three children. She was not looking to be a billionaire. Her little store and small apartment sheltered and nourished her family for more than a half-century.

My grandmother always said her home was a palace for her, she was luckier than the Queen Of England to have made it to America. I am grateful she did not live to see this dream fade in so ignorant and hateful a way. Those doors will not stay shut, I believe, my America has a bigger heart than any politician.

I am eager to meet more of these huddled masses, yearning to be free. I am proud to be sharing this journey with Maria. I imagine  Red will bring great comfort, given the chance, and if he is wanted. I hope I can take some photos and help people find work and navigate our strange world, maybe learn how to shop here, or how to read and write.

I hope I can turn even one mind about who these people really are, and about how little danger they pose to us. They are not our greatest danger, but our great salvation.

There is a lot of stake in this, and I feel it. This is who I am. Or am not.

There is no safety or comfort in shutting the golden door in the faces of the needy and desperate. There is no national virtue in destroying families, in separating husbands from wives, or mothers from sons and daughters.

There is no comfort in cowardice and blind rage.

My better angels are on the rise, and when I finally meet them face-to-face, they will know me and welcome me, and I will give thanks for them, and pray with them for a just and compassionate world..


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