You Are Safe With Me
Must living in peace - so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world - inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?
-Jenny Erpenbeck, "Go, Went, Gone"
The Russian marine scientist, Chakilev, has been tracking the walrus population "hauling out" on a remote island in the Siberian Arctic for a decade. The melting ice floes—which they need to rest, mate and give birth—have created a desperate, tragic situation for the walruses.
Two filmmakers have documented Chakilev's work in a short film for the New Yorker documentary series. If you don't have a subscription to the New Yorker, it's also on their YouTube site. (The title of the video is "Haulout.")
I have been haunted by this documentary for several days. It's a visceral testament to climate change as we are all beginning to experience it—even in the "developed" often callous, entitled world—and it's a metaphor for the migration of desperate men, women and children from poor, beleaguered, and war-torn nations collapsing onto our shores, pressing against our man-made borders. What is a border anyway if not man-made?
Comparing the 90,000 walruses scrambling for space on a small beach in the Arctic with the millions of desperate humans who have died at sea or live in tents in refugee camps may seem far-fetched, but I do not believe it is. Many climatologists and migration experts argue that war and forced migration are both climate change events—food shortages, drought—and that we can do something about both, if we are willing, and have not entirely lost our moral compass. The doing something can be the smallest of efforts, I find, as simple as the compost bin on my counter, leaving my car behind whenever possible, or voting for politicians with a social conscience. But the doing something for migrants and refugees within our communities takes a more conscious action, a right action, as the Buddhists would say. It is a choice not to look away, a choice to engage, and it is not always easy; it can be troubling and time consuming. And so it is with a courageous and determined young woman I met recently. Like the walruses washed up on the shore in the Arctic, her travails haunt me.
I will call her S to protect her identity. She arrived here as a child, is undocumented, wants to be a lawyer, works for low-pay off the books, and is trying to finish her GED so she can attempt a college application. "How are you feeling?" I ask whenever we meet. "How are your classes going?" Usually, she is hopeful, but she is also scared and—by necessity—vigilant. ICE agents are hovering, and I am not even certain, as yet, if my young friend is registered as a (DACA) Dreamer which costs $495 according to the DACA website. That must seem a formidable sum to her.
I met S by chance. Her story has surfaced in short chapters, and only after she trusted me. One day when we were talking, she noticed a safety pin on the lapel of my "professional" suit jacket, the one I wear when I interview someone for this blog or a publication. It's been there since the day ICE threatened a raid on the NYU campus. Professors, students, admin, support staff all began wearing safety pins on hats, coats, dresses and backpacks.
"The safety pin symbolizes that you are safe with me," I told S. Later, feeling less vigilant, she shared her full name with me and we exchanged emails and phone #s.
I do not take my American citizenship for granted. I am a child of refugees. I could have ended up in a tent city in Jordan, or a homeless shelter in Manhattan, or I could have died at sea, or never been born. Altruistic men and women took my family ashore and wrapped them in blankets. They helped my parents and many others settle, learn English, and find work. They helped them live a life of prosperity and dignity in the America of our hopes and dreams.