I’m sure by now we have all seen the heartbreaking story of the little boy on the beach in Turkey. I read a piece by poet Warsan Shire – an immigrant herself – which read,
You have to understand,
No one puts their child in a boat
Unless the water is safer than the land.
I cannot fathom the emotions of a parent who ultimately makes that choice. I cannot imagine a world in which risking death was a better option than certain death.
And yet, I am so, so torn by what I’ve been reading about the Syrian refugees. I am glad it’s gaining attention, because it can be so easy to turn away from events happening on the other side of the world. I have been reading calls for peaceful countries in Europe to open their doors, to let in the stranger and the immigrant. Indeed. And I’ve hesitated mentioning this because I’m very bothered by “Tragedy Olympics” – you know, if you are sad about something, but I have a tragedy that’s even sadder, I dismiss your tragedy because mine is worse. As though empathy is a zero-sum game, and if we’re heartbroken about one thing it automatically means we aren’t about another. It’s the cries of “If you care about that thing, you really should care about this thing!” Because I hate that so much, I’ve remained silent thus far.
We have a wall.
Let me repeat that.
WE HAVE A WALL.
Thousands of people seek refuge in the United States of America each year. And we have a wall.
There is a sort of “conventional wisdom” which paints these folks as manipulative, drug-using, violent criminals.
But I’ve seen their faces. Last winter, on a trip with my seminary through an organization called Borderlinks, I met countless people who sought refuge in the U.S. and were turned away. And not just turned away. Arrested. Placed in unsafe detention facilities. Chained. Processed. Placed on a bus and dropped off on the other side of the wall, only to be met with violence, trafficking, and drug smugglers ready to force them to walk the desert.
I heard so many stories, but one in particular stands out.* When he was young – about 9 – he witnessed a murder in a parking lot. He and his mother were getting in their car, and suddenly gunfire started. They crouched down, the gunfire quickly subsided, and the shooters raced away immediately. The boy then looked up to see the man in the car next to him, shot dead.
His mom started having an attack – he thought it was a heart attack, so he was able to get her to the hospital. Tests revealed it was a panic attack – understandable given what they just experienced. When she was about to be released from the hospital, the doctor told her that the police were on their way to question her about what she saw, so she needed to stay. This made her uneasy. She had a gut feeling – thankfully so – and she and her son left the hospital before the police arrived.
Fast forward several months. The police were actually involved in the shooting – not a surprise, in the heavily violent and corrupt city in which they lived – and they began stalking her. She received death threats. Her son was followed to and from school. The police would park outside her house. Shootings in her neighborhood increased. The police began knocking at her door and intimidating her. She wasn’t safe – violence was all around her, and she needed to protect her son. So she chose the risk of death over the certainty of death. There was no boat in which to put her son – but there was a dangerous desert to cross. So they did.
There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. – Mexico border. This forces those who wish to seek refuge in the United States to cross the desert on foot. The desert is filled with those who rob, rape, and kidnap. But the risk of death is a better choice than certain death. I cannot fathom being a parent and being faced with that choice.
“But why don’t they just do it the ‘legal’ way?” you might be asking. This is much easier said than done. There are immigration limits, quotas, misinformation, constantly-changing laws. Put another way, if that’s the question you have about our own border, would you be asking that of the crisis in Syria as well? “Why didn’t those Syrians just do it the legal way? Plenty of European countries have paths to legal immigration – they should just fill out the paperwork and wait!” When you are fleeing violence – as they are fleeing in Syria just as they are fleeing in Central America and Mexico – that is not always an option. The United States refuses to call them “refugees” (because of our own complicity in the region), but that’s what they are. Sure, the violence in Syria looks different, but when people are killing and kidnapping your kids, it doesn’t matter why or under what organization they fall.
My point here is that there is no difference between the Syrians fleeing violence and the Central Americans and Mexicans fleeing violence. And yet, we label one “refugees” and the other “illegals.” I believe that our call as people of God is to welcome and love the immigrant and the stranger – especially when they’re at our own door.
*I’ll change some details to generalities for the sake of the young man whose story this is.