I have spent a good portion of my adult life trying to avoid seeing the worst that the world has to offer. I remember the first time I knew true horror in this world. I was 17 years old, and the Columbine High School massacre suddenly brought to life all of the worst fears I’d ever had. I suddenly understood that no matter how safe you feel, no matter where you are, how old you are or who you are – someone with bad intentions can take everything away.
I remember the reaction of my high school. Instead of doing anything remotely practical, they instead decided to ban long trench coats. My friend, Morgan, was so proud of his long black leather trench coat, and he was threatened with expulsion if he wore it. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was, but we were told that it was the perfect way to hide guns. And it sort of made sense to me. Of course we should ban long jackets. It hides the guns. Of course.
A couple of years later, I was in my dorm room in my small Pennsylvania-college when I was awoken by my AIM beeping uncontrollably, messages flying in from all over alerting me to something horrible going on in New York. I turned on CNN and watched the news coverage as a plane crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center. I watched the towers fall. When we found out the fate of Flight 93 – crashing mere miles from our small college town, we were crushed. We huddled in small packs, watching the news all day long. Classes were canceled, and we reached out to friends and lovers and found consolation wherever we could.
It was middle-eastern terrorists. Muslims. Those evil brown people who were bent on destroying our country. When classes resumed, I remember the stiff nature of the three Indian boys in my Philosophy class. They were terrified. They’d been threatened. Their friend had been beaten badly off campus the day before. People couldn’t differentiate between Muslim and Indian. They were brown. They talked funny. That was enough.
I read about Daniel Pearl in Time magazine. I had spent most of my life wanting to be a journalist, imagining myself traveling the world to find the stories. I wanted to infiltrate the darkest places and expose them to the light of international recognition. I wanted to be the one to reach millions of people with my thoughtful words and amazing investigative skills. I refused to watch the video of his beheading, though the news coverage painted enough of a picture that I had nightmares for weeks. I decided I no longer wanted to be a journalist.
After two years of back and forth, I moved to the UK permanently in 2003. The large Muslim population terrified me. I was a card-carrying redneck from rural Pennsylvania who liked to fly my flag and shout USA! USA! whenever I sensed these foreigners (ha! foreigners! I was in their country and refused to acclimate) needed reminding about who was the real world power. I called Tony Blair “Bush’s lapdog.” I played “The Battle of New Orleans” at volume on Saturday nights. I denied having an American accent. These people all had a BRITISH accent.
I went to one of the markets in Reading town center. I loved seeing the beautiful fabrics and intricate bead work for sale. I enjoyed speaking to the vendors. I came upon a dark-skinned man in a turban at one stall. He called me over, and when he heard me speak, he became extremely animated. “You are American! Pretty girl, you are American! I love America. I love it! Beautiful country. For you, I make special gift.” He gave me a gorgeous silk handkerchief and kissed me once on each cheek, smiling widely and nodding. He told me to come back and see him again soon.
I went home and said to my husband, “I think he was giving me the kiss of death! He wants to put a jihad on me! From now on, I’m saying I’m from Canada!” I threw away the handkerchief.
Over the next several years in the UK my attitude changed hugely. I slowly but surely began to understand the differences in cultures, and I began seeing America more critically. I no longer saw it as the greatest country in the world. I saw it as MY country and my home, but I realized just how sheltered it really was. Many of my hometown friends had never even left the state, let alone traveled abroad. And those who had had merely visited other countries as a tourist without truly opening themselves up to other cultures. I realized that these smart, free-thinking adults that I knew and loved weren’t necessarily as understanding of the world as they thought they were.
I never saw myself as racist. I knew what racism was. It was my dad calling all Mexicans “wetbacks.” It was my grandfather making jokes about having black people in our family tree (“they’re still hanging there, har har har”). It was the casual way my friends equated all Muslims with terrorists. Or the conversation where I learned that one of my best friends thought that Islam and Hinduism were the same religion because they were both practiced by “brown people in turbans.”
But my own racism was hidden to me. I didn’t think black people were inherently bad or dangerous, but I still tensed up when one came near me. I completely understood that radical Muslims were different from the peace-loving Muslims who I saw every day. But I still got scared when I boarded a flight and saw a Muslim with a briefcase at the gate.
When I moved back to the US back in 2012, I did not anticipate feeling like a stranger in my own country. I bristled as I listened to the vitriol spat at our first black president by those who insisted he was trying to ruin our country. I remembered the reaction in the UK and Europe when Barack Obama had won. It was such a celebration because the rest of the world saw hope after the perceived disaster of the Bush administration.
And now we are faced with a new election featuring two people who have serious flaws. Our country is riddled with problems. Constant and un-abating police brutality toward black people. A serious human rights issue for LGBT people. And a gun problem so intense that we have become a laughingstock to the rest of the world.
Our citizens are only too happy to listen to the spin from people like Donald Trump. All Mexicans are rapists. All refugees are time bombs. Our country, though founded by people escaping religious persecution and once referred to as a “melting pot,” is no longer a place for those who aren’t white Christians from rich countries.
Last year, my heart broke when this photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy who drowned as he and his family were trying to escape the horrors of his war-torn country went viral.
I couldn’t help but see my own three year old son, Daniel. I couldn’t stop the flow of tears as I weeped for a child I never knew who was one of thousands who had experienced the same fate. I finally looked at what was happening in the world. I wanted to help. I gave $500 to rescue operations because I just didn’t know what else to do. I still don’t.
I have spent the last year forcing myself to look at the photos and videos of every bad thing happening, and it hurts every time. I thought I’d become hardened to it. But I don’t. Each new thing cuts like a knife.
Yesterday, I saw the video of Omran Daqneesh, a five year old Syrian boy whose photo has gone viral when he was rescued after an airstrike in Aleppo. He is covered in blood and dust and he is completely vacant. He is, in the realest sense of the word, shell shocked.
And for a moment, my heart stopped. It wasn’t Omran sitting there in that ambulance, absently running his hand along his face and wiping blood on the seat. It was my five year old son, Dexter. It was my son who was staring into nothingness, so completely uncomprehending of what just happened to him. It was my son sitting there, not crying, not asking questions, just completely numb to everything.
It is part of human nature to see ourselves in others. To relate our own story to theirs. It is so easy to say, “that could be my child but for the grace of god or fate.” But the truth is that this is not my child or your child. But he is someone’s child. And like thousands or millions of other children in the middle of this war, he deserves better. This should NOT be his normal.
Donald Trump once likened refugee children to Trojan Horses. He said that he’d have no trouble looking them in the face and telling them they are not welcome in our country. He suggested that these kids could be weapons of our enemies, used to infiltrate and destroy us. And all I can say is, “isn’t that all the more reason to rescue them?”
My father once told me when I was young that one day our country would fall. He said that every great empire has eventually destroyed itself. He said that right now America was the biggest and strongest, but it wouldn’t always be the case. But he assured me that we would not fall in my lifetime, nor my kids’. I took solace in that back then. But I don’t anymore.
This is not the America I know and love. Innocent people from all walks of life are dying all over the world. I do not ignore our own citizens dying. But we are ignoring any issues that aren’t related to ISIS/ISIL or supposed Muslim terrorists. We have mass shootings every day not related to Muslims. White people taking up arms against non-white people under the guise of fear.
I keep being told there is more good in the world than bad – the news only reports the bad. But that is part of the problem. We are all impressionable. If all we see is the bad, we assume things are bad. We reap what we sow.
I hear people say, “we need to deal with our issues at home before we allow others into our country. They only want to destroy us anyway.” And yet, we are not dealing with our own issues. We are making them worse with ineffective leaders and outdated policies. What exactly is there left to destroy?
I don’t know how much more I can take. I don’t know what I can do. I write this to remind myself and others to speak up. Even if my thoughts are muddy and unclear – even if I can’t quite come up with the right words to convey what I think and feel, and even if I don’t have any idea what the solution can be, I will speak up.
Here’s what I know. I’d rather make a mistake in love and compassion than one based on hatred or fear.