Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil…
-from the St. James Bible, "Exodus"
… a conference was convened at The Hague in 1899. Twenty European powers attended along with the United States, Mexico, Japan, China. Siam and Persia. The Russian proposals for freezing armament levels were defeated, but the convention did agree on rules of warfare and established a permanent court of arbitration… the International Court of Justice…
-Robert K. Massie, "Nicholas and Alexandra"(1967)
The refugee agency sent my parents to Wyoming. They were doctors and could use their skill to find work, they were told. They had no choice. Refugees rarely have choices. Not at first, anyway, not just after they've landed and been shuttled somewhere or other. Pretend. Imagine what it feels like to be at the mercy of broken systems, callous border guards, and opportunistic Governors running for President.
My mother got a job as a nurse's aide, studied English, and tried to get visas for her parents. No luck; they were killed. My father got a job as a "ghost doctor," shadowing ophthalmic surgeons and sharing his particular expertise in still fractured English. The Latin medical words were the same, at least. He tried to get visas for his parents. No luck; they were killed. Meanwhile, the refugee agency scattered his siblings. One of them landed in Canada, another in California. Close enough to stay in contact over the years so that the word "family" still held meaning. My mother, an only child, had a cousin or two left, but everyone else was killed.
And so it goes if you are a refugee. What has been taken violently shall not, cannot be replaced. Every reparation, restitution, or truth and reconciliation commission, is inadequate, a mere gesture, a token, however comforting. The past is past and cannot be retrieved or rewritten. Life may begin in an olive orchard and end in a tent city.
On bad days I try to remember how fortunate I am to have American citizenship despite the scary fascistic insanity here at the moment. And if I can't face my daily challenges, I say to myself, "Think of your parents. Think of the Afghans, Armenians, Palestinians, and so many others. Pretend you are a refugee." How does this help? It keeps me humble. It keeps me hopeful. It keeps me determined. The United States of America was once a safe haven. And so it shall remain, I say to myself.
Why am I pretending to be a refugee today? Because it's been a challenging day and I am feeling sorry for myself. My car needs new tires, it has sprung a leak and needs to go into the shop today and then again on Monday. I had to drop it off early this morning and walk home under a thunder-threatening sky on a road too busy with traffic. And it was foggy. Okay so I am tired and have work to do, my knees hurt and I am not supposed to walk too much this week. Big deal. Get on with it. Stop complaining. Pretend you are a refugee. Your problems are nothing compared to the refugees who are drowning off boats in the Mediterranean, or cowering inside containers at Le Havre, getting caught and thrown into cells, treated like cattle until they feel so dehumanized and frightened they can hardly answer questions: "Where are you from? Why are you here? Where are your papers?"
My father's parents were killed en route to America, the promised land, shot dead in the mountains, their bodies left for the coyotes. Using their life savings, they had hired a human coyote, in fact, and he didn't make it either. All dead in the mountains. My grandparents' bones are in a crevasse and cannot be retrieved for a proper burial.
And so it goes if you are a refugee, trying to escape a war zone, or persecution because of your sexuality, or because you are a young woman living in Iran threatened with imprisonment after getting arrested during a demonstration, or because you are a Palestinian and have grown up in a refugee camp in Jordan and cannot return to what should be a shared homeland with the Jewish People if the words peace and reconciliation meant anything.
Pretend you are a refugee, just for an hour, just for a day. And then get out the vote for people who are competent, people who care, politicians who see beyond our borders to the world beyond and all its struggling people.
This post is dedicated to Narges Mohammadi, winner of the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, who is still imprisoned in Iran. Her husband and twin sons are refugees in Paris.