Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Letter to My Children

In 2001, when Mike and I lived in Germany, we had the privilege of attending a 25th wedding anniversary party for our landlords, Henry and Gisela. The party was held at a castle in Kamien Slaski, Poland, near where our landlords were originally from. This was in the region of Silesia, an unlucky area disputed by Germany, Austria and Poland for centuries. About a hundred guests traveled to the party, and many of these guests were of an age and from a place where World War II changed the course of their lives. 

There was a woman who, at the time of the war, was a little girl who's father had been an economist-turned-soldier, who fought and died for his German homeland. After the war, this fatherless child grew up poverty-stricken in a war-destroyed country. There was a couple who now lived in Canada, both of whom had fled their native countries - Hungary and Czechoslovakia. One was orphaned during the war and moved from orphanage to orphanage seeking safety, one had fled from country to country seeking safety with his family. Both had ended up in Canada, where they met and married. There were so many other people there who had been displaced, people who had suffered, people whose lives were forever changed by the circumstances of the politics of the time. The many people we met and the stories they told were almost unbelievable, except that history books prove their truth. It was a formative and humbling experience to meet so many who had been through so much.

During this trip, Mike and I boarded a train and traveled from Wroclaw to Krakow, where we got on a bus and traveled through rolling, sparsely populated countryside to the sleepy town of Oswiecim, home to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz was neither the first or the last concentration camp we visited during our years in Germany but it was, however, the most profoundly emotional and horrific place we ever visited.

The Russian forces that liberated Auschwitz recorded finding 350,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 8.5 TONS (17,000 pounds) of human hair, shaved from the camp’s victims. The camp became a museum in 1947 (in the two post-war years, it fittingly served as a German POW camp), and in the 1950s, an exhibit opened displaying these remnants, stolen from the million+ people exterminated at this one camp. Enshrined in these buildings are rooms full of eyeglasses, mountains of shoes, entire rooms full of infant clothes, and so, so much hair.…all taken from human beings terminated in gas chambers, in ovens, against the brick walls that remain, still full of bullet holes. The horrors still haunt this hallowed ground, the silence deafening, as visitors mentally conjure images of the atrocities that happened here. One person in our group vomited into the dirt, so horrifying is this memorial. 

Hitler’s reign resulted in the deaths of more than six million Jews, but “six million Jews” is too broad, too generic, too simplified. Those “six million Jews” consisted of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, children, infants, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, and grandfathers. There were also non-Jews, the sick, the mentally ill, homosexuals, gypsies, and those in whatever group Hitler deemed unworthy and expendable. People from many nations, all classes. People who were loved by others. People who became victims as a twisted ideology took root and grew into something horrific that changed the entire world, while claiming tens of millions of lives in the process. 

Our three years in Germany were a constant history lesson. It is with this personal experience that I look to what happened in Charlottesville earlier this week, and wonder where the disconnect is between the white nationalists of today and the truth of the reality of the past. The people who identify themselves as Neo-nazis, or white nationalists, or whatever terms they choose, are clearly incredibly limited in their grasp of history. They say they want to “take America back,” but America has never belonged to any one type of people. The original Americans — the Native Americans — would argue they are perhaps the ones America belongs to. But then came the first foreigners - white Europeans, who stole and enslaved other foreigners — the Africans, who helped build this country on the strength of their whipped backs. Then came generations of more foreigners, fleeing religious persecution, famine, poverty, tyranny. Each new group of immigrants was vilified and loathed by the people who were here before. Yet somehow, so many people have forgotten that every one of us who has white skin came from someone who was once a foreigner. Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants, some of us more recent, some of us from generations ago. 

While I hold this truth to be self evident, that we are all created equal (and not just Americans, I believe that ALL human beings born ANYwhere are created equal), we are not born into equal circumstance. Because of the color of our skin or our sex or our sexual orientation or the class of our parents or our religion, we will all have differing experiences that will shape our lives and chart our course. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Xenophobia is real. Poverty is its own self-fulfilling problem. I would never presume to assume someone else’s experiences are the same as my own, without having walked a mile in their shoes. 

In short, the intention of this letter is fairly simple: Don’t judge. Love one another.  Tell other people to do the same. Make the world more tolerant, a better place, by your words and actions. If someone is misinformed, try to help them see the light (this will NOT be easy but nothing worthwhile is). Know history. Travel if you have the ability to. Read. To borrow a quote from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in the world. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

This is Them

They’re your above-average, all-American family. The dad is an internal medicine doctor, the mom a primary care physician. Their three boys are all smarter and funnier than your average kids: the oldest is a soccer-playing, straight-A student who loves to sing, dance and play guitar; the middle and youngest boys are 14 months apart and always together, always being comedians. Grandma, a former architect, lives with them and helps out with the boys, and she’s “always on her phone, playing Candy Crush,” or so says the oldest boy. 

They’re also Muslims. And from Iraq. 

Abdul and Zara met in medical school in 1996 in their hometown of Baghdad. They are Shi’ite, and life under Saddam Hussein and Sunni rule was hard. Each family experienced their own hardships - Zara’s uncle had been killed by the Hussein regime, and Abdul had a cousin who’d been unjustly imprisoned for eight years under Hussein. Without being Sunni, Abdul knew he had no future in Iraq, despite being a doctor. When he finished medical school in 1996, he left the country of his birth — his home — for Jordan, with his parents’ blessings, knowing he would never be able to return.

Zara, six years his junior, stayed in Baghdad to finish medical school, graduating in 2002. During her residency at a hospital in Baghdad, the Americans began their quest to oust Saddam Hussein. “I’d go to the hospital and I’d walk on blood because everyone was dying and there wasn’t enough time to clean it up,” she remembers. “Ever since I was born, there was always war.” She was 25 years old at the time, watching her country disintegrate. 

Zara left Baghdad late in 2003 and joined Abdul in Pittsburgh, where he’d secured a residency in 2000. During their time in Pittsburgh, they welcomed their first child. After residency, Abdul got a job in New Mexico. Obtaining employment wasn’t easy, and Abdul could only apply for a job that had been posted and unfilled for six months, to be sure he wasn’t taking a position away from an American. In New Mexico, they had two more children. Zara took and passed tests in between having babies, and eventually found a residency in Maryland, where the family moved in 2011. 

The process to become legal U.S. citizens was lengthy and expensive, and they earned their citizenship in 2012 after a requisite five-year wait after receiving their green cards. It was official…the entire family were Americans. Over the years, many of their family members left Iraq, settling in the U.S. and Canada. Zara and Abdul always knew there was some anti-Muslim dissent in America, but people were mostly quiet about it. They felt safe here, which is why they’d left their homeland in the first place — for a place where they could have opportunity, be free and feel safe. 

And then Donald Trump came to the forefront of American politics, first as a candidate and then as President. Zara and Abdul, and half of America, watched in alarm as Trump’s following grew and grew, though they never thought he would be elected president. Trump had no filter, but people loved him; he said outrageous things, but people loved it. After the election, Zara hoped that he’d been all talk and that he wouldn’t be nearly as provocative as he’d been on the campaign trail, that he wouldn’t do the things he talked about doing. But, as it turned out, Trump’s doing what he said he’d do. And his supporters love him for it. Zara thinks his election gave people the ‘courage’ to speak their prejudices openly. After all, if the leader of the free world can say it, why shouldn’t they be able to?

While Trump’s travel ban didn’t specifically apply to them because, legally, they are American citizens and hold American passports, they are frightened. They cancelled their trip to the Caribbean over spring break, fearful of what surprise executive order might come while they’re out of the country. Grandma, who is here on a visa, was affected by the travel ban. She had a trip planned to Dubai on February 10 to see the son she hadn’t seen in almost two years. Though the ban is now lifted, she cancelled her trip, fearful of being unable to get back into America, subject to the president’s whims. 

Zara tearfully acknowledges that while she doesn’t worry about herself, she is definitely worried about her children. She says she doesn’t care what people think of her, or her faith, because she knows who she is. But the boys are young and innocent, and she is fearful for their safety — fearful they will encounter hateful people who will say hateful things to them. Some boys at school called her oldest son “ISIS;” and when he found out about the travel ban, he worried whether their family and cousins would ever be able to visit again. 

Zara and Abdul want their children to grow up in the Muslim faith, to be knowledgeable about the language and culture and faith of their ancestors. Abdul recalls the hard times in his own life, when he felt all alone, except for Allah. He knows, statistically, people who have faith are generally happier, more successful, and less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide. But now Zara worries about sending their kids to the local Islamic Sunday school, a fear legitimized by the recent murders of six Muslims praying in a mosque in Quebec. The shooter was a Canadian, white-Nationalist who admires Trump.  
Emotionally, the election of Trump has taken a toll on Zara. She has less interest in social activities in their mostly white, Anglo neighborhood. Some of her patients and co-workers are outspoken in their admiration of Trump. Since the election, she second-guesses everyone and everything, unsure of how they might feel about her or her religion or where she’s from. 

Abdul is hopeful that the future will be better, but still worries the day will come when he will have to register as a Muslim, submit his phone for monitoring, or wear an identification badge of some sort. He worries that it is within the realm of the president’s powers to strip him and his wife of their citizenship, of what would happen to his American-born children if that happened. He doesn’t know where their family would go; he says he no longer has a country. They have no more family in Iraq; Zara’s father, a cardiologist, was the only one in the family who’d stayed there, in an attempt to help his failing country and countrymen, and he recently died. The family wouldn’t want to go back to Iraq anyway; they left so long ago on a quest for a better life. America has been their home for almost half their lives, and it’s the only home their children have ever known. But Zara says that, if things ever truly became terrible in America, they would leave because “the world is bigger than America.” They left their homes once before and, for the sake of their children, they would do it again, if they had to.

Abdul and Zara still believe in the goodness of America and most of its people. But they are also fearful for their children, in the very land they adopted and that adopted them, in the country that has been their home for so long. Words and actions have consequences, and both the common people and especially those in power need to think of the actual people who are being affected by their policies, implemented without thoughtful analysis…people like Abdul and Zara and their kids, people who are the face of the American dream.

Abdul’s and Zara’s story is compelling for so many reasons: they are highly educated and fluent in English. They are the neighbors we call when our kid has a cough that makes us nervous; they are our doctors. They are taxpayers who pay more than average; they are our fellow soccer mom and soccer dad. They set a powerful example of courage and hope by sacrificing everything they knew to make a better life for themselves and the children they hoped to someday have.

I know all this about them because I’ve asked them at the bus stop, at neighborhood gatherings, in random conversation. I wanted to know their story because everyone has one, especially those who were born somewhere else. 

Do you know someone who is of the Muslim faith? Do you know someone who left their birthplace in search of a better life? Have you ever talked to them or asked them questions about their background? As a personal plea, I beg you to ask questions every day so that you can put a face to “the Muslims,” to “the immigrants,” to “the gays,” to “the blacks,” to “the women,” or to whoever else happens to be in the group being persecuted. 

Find the individual stories before forming an opinion about the group. The only way to refute a stereotype or to confront a fear is to learn. So I offer to you the story of Abdul and Zara, an all-American family, so similar to my own. Who just so happen to be Muslim, and from Iraq.