Back when I was in the early years of college I did an internship for social justice in Los Angeles. I had chosen to live in a safe house in east LA that provided aid and assistance to impoverished families. One morning I came down to find two sisters from the Missionaries of Charity sitting at the table with our house administrators. They had a similar home just down the street from us and they were well known for opening it as a sanctuary for refugees. I and the other interns were all asked to make an important decision that day.
A family of refugees from Central America were headed to LA and needed housing, and the sisters home was already filled to capacity. Our house admins agreed to do this, but we would be permitted to go to another program, without judgement, if we were not comfortable with this decision. At the time providing sanctuary for people from certain nations in Central America was controversial, risky and technically illegal as they had not been granted refugee status. This was because the US was supporting, training and funding the right wing militias that terrorized the general population in their homelands, causing them to flee for their lives. We knew what was at stake. We understood we needed to be careful about whom we told. And we were very nervous, but we committed to it anyway.
That evening we held a reception for the family we had taken in. They were of Mayan ancestry and sat on a couch in the middle of the room, dressed in traditional clothing, grinning ear to ear at us quietly, as they gratefully ate the sandwiches we offered them. Later, I learned that the risk I had taken paled in comparison to theirs. We sat silently as we listened to the horrors they had witnessed and the perilous journey they had undertaken to find a better life for their children. I am forever grateful for that experience because I was able to get to know some of the most gracious and loving people I have ever encountered.
This is one of the reasons why the repugnant things being said about refugees, whether they are from Central America or Africa or the Middle-East, cuts me to the core. The xenophobic vitriol is at fever pitch, just as it was back then. This is because the refugee is an easy target for the powerful. Unlike the faceless ghosts from one of their mass graves, they are living, breathing reminders of the crimes they committed in far flung places that now haunt them in their own backyard. They must, if they are to continue their murderous plunder, expunge them from the public record of decency through demonization and fear mongering.
In the years since my internship, I have had the opportunity to work with many refugees, most of which were from America’s many imperialistic wars or support of despotic, client regimes around the world, many from Iraq and Syria, and many Muslims. Each one that I met told me similar stories of their plight and expressed deep gratitude for being accepted into safety. They had lives in the homes they were forced to flee from. They had no desire to leave them. They all had family members, friends and belongings that are now lost forever. But they all held out hope for a better life.
As the chaos from climate change accelerates and ecosystems degrade, Western leaders will undoubtedly become more nervous, reactionary and draconian. And it is only matter of time before the comfortable of the West may be in similar straights as refugees today. One need only look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for evidence of that. Given what we are seeing we can expect the powerful to respond to us in the same way as they are to them, and this is why our solidarity with them is so urgent. This is not a value that one commits to when things are easy or bright. This is the defining measure of our shared humanity that is meaningless unless one is willing to take great risk to defend it. In the end it reveals the truth that there is no “other.” We are one human family, or we are nothing.
Kenn Orphan 2015