On ‘Embracing the Infidel’

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey WestEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West by Behzad Yaghmaian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rather fitting that I finished this book on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day. And, it’s rather fitting that I read this book, now as the furor over migrants to my own country reaches a fever pitch.

In Embracing the Infidel, Behzad Yaghmaian allows us to walk in the shoes of those very much unlike ourselves. At least very much unlike myself. I do not have to be an asylum seeker or refugee to understand the desperation involved in fleeing one’s home, legally or clandestinely.

But, this rather heartbreaking book allows us to understand not just the reasons individuals risk their lives and their children’s to cross imaginary lines. It allows us to understand just how difficult it is to do so legally and safely, if not altogether impossible those conditions for migrating are for some.

Most of the individual life histories presented here focus on those fleeing various forms of violence—both mental and physical, state-sponsored and familial in origin. And, even when they attempt to follow laws, both local and international, the migrants described herein face additional forms of abuse and violence in the countries to which they seek peace and freedom.

Himself an immigrant, Yaghmaian compassionately and intimately allows each of those he meets on his two-year journey across Europe to shape their own narratives. From their reasons for leaving their homes to their progress (or inability to progress) across various lines drawn on maps by powerful men to the few who have reached ‘the West and what once promised a quiet life in peace, each of these individuals’ stories are important. They are crucial to understanding the migrant ‘crisis’ that dominates headlines and political discussions. They offer a narrative missed by those declaring their support or outrage at various policies.

Despite being published more than ten years ago, we’re still plagued by many of the same issues and the same inertia when it comes to finding solutions to conflicts or granting legal status to those in seemingly hopeless situations. No answers are provided here; but, that’s not the purpose of this book. If anything, this book provides a lesson in empathy, one we could all use a bit more of to my mind.

It’s worthwhile to understand that so many around the globe are currently living as refugees. 68 500 000 million of them in fact. Each of them deserves a chance to be heard. Each of them is important.

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Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

If this is how it affects me…

A little over five years ago, my husband and I endured what seemed like an impossible task at the time. It felt never-ending. Because of a set of circumstances we could not predict, we found ourselves applying for permanent residence in Finland on grounds then called ‘humanitarian reasons‘.

What strikes me as odd now is how that one event—an event stretching out to nearly a full year—continues to haunt me today.

Humanitarian reasons, or protections, as the Migration service refers to them now, are no longer accepted as justification for residence applicants. Thankfully, that classification no longer applies to us since we now hold permanent residence. I cannot imagine if we had not had that as a valid reason for submitting applications at the time. As an American with that all-important blue passport, I still find it weird that I personally fell into that category at all. Still, then, our only reason for meeting the conditions related to our mutual passports and an odd convergence of circumstances which meant we fit no other viable category.

Today, we will make our way to a Finnish Migration Service (or Migri) service point in Helsinki to renew our permanent residence cards, cards which arrived and filled us with the most immense relief I’ve ever known or am likely to ever feel. Months of waiting in a near-panic state, months of uncertainty and tidal waves of what-ifs should either or both of us be denied residence, months of simply putting everything in our life on hold until we knew what was possible. When those cards dropped to the floor as we ripped the envelope open, we didn’t merely cry, we sobbed and choked and laughed and hugged and cried some more. A period marred more as a form of psychological torture came to an abrupt and welcome end. That torment still awakens me in a cold sweat five-plus years later.

Today’s trip is already so vastly different to that hellish submission process in 2012. Then, we were armed with a bundle of paperwork (which were supplemented by three more bundles in the months that followed). Today, we need only bring our passports, our residence permit cards, and new passport photos. Then we waited hours to be seen in a numbered queue system. Today, we have an appointment.

Yet, the anxiety and worry persists despite the vastly different circumstances. Last night, I awoke in a cold sweat after having a nightmare about my handbag being nicked. What was I most concerned with? My precious residence card being amongst the items stolen and our appointment at Migri. This is not the first anxiety dream; I expect it won’t be the last.

Despite the lingering memory of that time, I know how fortunate we are, particularly compared to others who have endured far worse journeys to Finland and infinitely more stressful circumstances surrounding their own applications and long waits. If this is how this process affects me—the privileged, middle-class, white girl from the suburbs of Middle America—how does it affect those fleeing real humanitarian crises? How long do their nightmares last? And, how deep is the despair for those denied a peaceful life in this at times overly quiet country after surviving the most hellish conditions?

You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is ‘illegal’. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal? — Elie Wiesel

NoHumanIsIllegal_Logo_Klein.

 

 

On ‘Six Words Fresh Off the Boat’

SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America (ABC)SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America by Larry Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of the United States is the story of immigrants intermingling. (It is also one forgotten, where most of those migrants decimated native populations as well.) But, capturing the stories of immigrants in six words only is as compelling and beautiful as it is tragic.

‘Six Words Fresh off the Boat’ eloquently pieces together six-word narratives alongside longer stories and context, illustrating all that it means to be an American in today’s anti-immigrant climate. George Takei and Chimimanda Nogozi Adichie provide shorter reflections from their own lives alongside the painful truth of undocumented DREAMers who have lived invisible lives.

‘Nobody is ever just a refugee’, warns Adichie. Indeed. No-one is simply ‘American’ regardless of how recent they arrived.

These collections are poignant reminders that America was already great. And, it will remain so as long as we cherish own rich diversity and patchwork histories rather than dismiss them in search of uniformity.

My own six-word narrative as an American?

‘American falls in love with Cuban.’

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Lady Liberty

I’m all out of words. So, I’ll borrow a few from the base of Lady Liberty.

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“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!”

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War is hell…

Before we judge those who cross over invisible borders attempting to find a better way of life, we must understand the conditions they flee.

The Independent posted the following video illustrating the destruction of war and conflict in a series of photos starkly comparing the before and after (during?) realities many face.

What would you do if you watched your world continued to crumble around you?

Struggling to make sense of it all

This year. This year brought with it hope and joy and goodness. It also brought unspeakable tragedy and despair, and what at times seems like an endless stream of senselessness. I find myself struggling with it all like never before. I suspect I am not alone.

Mercifully, none of these tragedies or despair are my own. Yet, as I attempt to absorb the news of each new tragedy, finding some glimmer of kindness amongst my fellow humans can seem like a futile quest. ‘What is wrong with us?!’, is a question far too often repeated, becoming equally and increasingly incredulous and louder with each passing week.

Most recently, like much of the world I have tried and failed to understand why we seem incapable of preventing the needless and horrid death of a young Syrian boy, whose only ‘crime’ was being born to a family living through what surely must be hell on Earth, and who tragically made a most desperate attempt to find peace and security in Europe.

But, it’s not just the images of Aylan Kurdi which haunt my consciousness; it’s how my fellow privileged folk in the peaceful and calm developed North react. Whilst messages of #RefugeesWelcome bring me a sense of awe and hope, the voices of hate and vitriol ring just as loud, if not louder and more persistent, drowning out those seeking and extending compassion and kindness.

This theme, which did not begin recently, seems to repeat itself over and over and over again. Each new injustice and each new tragedy, each new viral story of the idiocy and ugliness which pervades this world is accompanied by hatred so intense and profound that I find myself speechless. Who are these people? What has happened to them—to us—to inspire such intense feelings of hatred for another human based on seemingly insignificant traits or differences? Are we really that different from one another? Are our stories so vastly divergent that we share absolutely nothing in common with ‘the other’? What has happened to our humanity? And, can we find it once again? Or are we hopelessly lost?

It’s the worst sort of rabbit hole to find one’s self in; climbing up out of it can seem insurmountable.

We need a reset button. Collectively and individually. I include myself within this targeted mass re-calibration. Wars will end and new ones will begin. The outward traits of tomorrow’s refugees may differ from those of today, but they will all seek a life which is free from worry and fear for themselves and, mostly, for their loved ones, perhaps more so for the youngest and oldest in our midst. Will we ignore them, choosing instead to leave families who look different to simply exist in horrid conditions and ‘camps‘? Will we help them to find a different, less crisis-laden life amongst us?

Perhaps we simply need to re-focus our energy on those tiny bits of goodness each one of us can pass along to those in need. Re-train those individual strengths and talents we each possess to create a better, safer, more just world, which when combined may result in lasting change that benefits us all equitably. Re-image and discover that one common trait we share with those who seem so outwardly so entirely different from us.

We must do something. Otherwise, we are lost. And, ultimately, we all lose.

This week’s viral escapade featuring the worst sort of pigeon-holing, most troubling in that it was directed at a young boy with what appears to be a promising intellect, provides some hope. If we can collectively step up and police those who seek to profile based on antiquated and bigoted perceptions, perhaps we can create a better world.

So many stories remain untold, while each one is worth telling. Maybe that re-telling is our first step on the arduous path towards understanding and making sense of it all…

 

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