Tears down the cheeks of lady liberty
What is it about refugees that seems to scare America, a nation of immigrants, ‘a nation of nations’ as it calls itself
Refugees detained at American airports, including New York City’s JFK, in full view of the Statue of Liberty, at whose pedestal are inscribed the iconic words by Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...”? Is this really happening? In America?
“Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said soon after President Trump issued his executive order on immigration last week, limiting the admission of visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily banning the admittance of all refugees. “A grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded, has been stomped on.”
The executive order not only appeared to “stomp” on that tradition, but to create chaos at customs -- chaos of the bizarre kind, where last Friday former Norway Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevik, was held in a room with travelers from the Middle East and Africa and questioned after customs officials saw in his diplomatic passport that he had been to Iran in 2014 -- and to trigger widespread protests around the country.
What is it about refugees that seems to scare America, a nation of immigrants, “a nation of nations” as it calls itself, whose population is made up literally of people who come, or whose ancestors come, from literally every country in the world?
When you see someone being denied refuge – refuge from being caught in the crossfire between warring armies in his native land, refuge from persecution, refugee from natural disaster – the spectacle strikes you at your moral core. But when one makes the denial contingent on that refugee’s ethnic, national or religious origins, one has to re-examine one’s moral compass.
When you see someone being denied refuge – refuge from being caught in the crossfire between warring armies in his native land, refuge from persecution, refugee from natural disaster – the spectacle strikes you at your moral coreFawaz Turki
Refugees by choice?
Look, refugees do not abandon home and homeland – the place where they have anchored that immemorial intimacy human beings feel with the rock, earth and ash of their acre – by choice. They abandon it only when propelled to do so by that innate human drive for self-preservation. “No one leaves home,” wrote Warsan Shire, the London-based, award-winning Somali poet, “unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
The January 27 executive order has had a devastating impact not only on refugees fleeing the listed countries, but on any foreign national whose home country does not, under US immigration law, provide the “information needed to adjudicate any visa, admission or other benefit” that would legalize that refugee’s status -- that is, make sure that refugee is “vetted.”
All well and good. But consider the catch-22 here that a refugee fleeing persecution faces in this instant. Does anyone really believe that, say, the Syrian government in Damascus would provide the information needed to enable the United States to “adjudicate” a Syrian refugee’s persecution claim?
When in the past that was impractical, Washington waived the rule. In past years, the US refugee program, for example, brought hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to the country without asking the Soviet Union to provide information about them.
It would clearly have been pointless to ask Moscow to help in that regard, ass it would have been equally pointless to ask, say, the Khmer Rouge government in Phom Penh or the Communist government in Hanoi when it admitted, respectively, tens of thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees to the US in the 1970s.
Displaced and stateless
Refugees, including displaced and stateless people, believe it or not, have rights in international law. And the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established in 1950, is tasked by the international body with protecting these rights, providing durable solutions such as return or resettlement.
Meanwhile, chaos continues to reign at JFK and other American airports. But the chaos was the least of it. It now transpires that tens of thousands of visas (the State Department says “only 60,000”) have been revoked, not only of those held by people about to embark on their journeys to the US, but by people already in the US. Though these people will not be deported, it was revealed that should they leave the country, they will not be allowed to return.
The plight of Syrian refugees is, of course, the most dire. According to UN figures released in February 2016, there are 13.5 million Syrians in “need of humanitarian assistance,” of which more than 6 million are internally displaced and over 4.8 million are refugees outside the country. If only a fraction of these folks are granted asylum, in the US and elsewhere, then we will have shown our compassion to a fraction of people deserving it.
What is need here, cliches aside, is compassion – compassion derived from the knowledge that, at the end of the day, we are all guests in each other’s homes, we are all brothers and sisters under the skin. To that extent, I leave you with a quote from Nelson Mandela about the nature of the global village we all inhabit in our lifetime. “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other,” he wrote, “not in pity, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
And, yes, look out for the next cover of the New Yorker (no mean event in American journalism) dated February 13, featuring the image “Liberty’s flame-out.” John Tomac, the young artist who created it, said: “It used to be that the Statue of Liberty and her shining torch was the vision that welcomed new immigrants. And at the same time, it was the symbol of American values. Now it seems we are turning off the lights.”
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.