Had I Been Born in Iran, You’d Do This to Me

To say I’m not surprised we’ve reached this point, this quickly would be an understatement. In fact, I’m more surprised it took this long.

The current President ran a campaign based on the dehumanization of virtually every possible group except white evangelicals (who still seem to overwhelmingly support his agenda). If you were a person of color or one of those who sits at the limits of whiteness, the target on your back only has only become bigger.

From immigration advocates, like my friend Pablo Manriquez, we heard dire warnings about what this administration (and even the last) was doing. To date, Obama deported more than Trump has. And to be clear, I was also critical of Obama on this issue. It was one of several disappointing calculations the 44th President made. More importantly, it created space for the sorts of actions we see today.

But the current state of affairs at the southern border constitute a severe moral erosion of American society. Far worse than anything Obama did, the current administration has decided to rip families apart as they try to cross the border. Most, if not all, made the difficult choice to trek hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain in order to seek asylum in the United States. They are fleeing immediate threats of, among other things, violence, persecution, forced sexual slavery, forced labor, etc. in their home countries—not altogether different than why many of our ancestors came to this country.

You wouldn’t, however, be wrong to suggest that in order to claim asylum status one must cross formally recognized borders. But even as I write this, reports are surfacing that those borders are being closed to those seeking asylum. Additionally, a little over a week ago, the Trump administration announced that gang and domestic violence aren’t grounds for asylum. Thus, nearly every asylum seeker will be denied.

To describe the situation facing asylum seekers as anything, but Kafkaesque would be a travesty. To gain asylum you have to cross at a recognized border. But that option is shuttered. To turn back means, you’ll certainly be killed. To enter the United States at a crossing that isn’t recognized means possible detention, family separation, and eventual deportation, because of the new policies by the current US President.

I’ve seen some suggest this policy by the Trump administration is no different than what Obama did. Or that this is a law passed by Democrats. But, claiming it was Obama’s policy is simply not true. Neither is claiming it was a law passed by Democrats, who haven’t controlled Congress since early 2010. That said, Obama, in accordance with the Flores Settlement, did house unaccompanied minors in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. But Obama did not separate families. In fact, he kept them together through the deportation hearings.

The Trump Administration seems confused, as well. On Sunday night, just one day after White House Advisor Stephen Miller was quoted defending the family separation policy, Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen tweeted that families weren’t being separated. On Monday, however, she defended the policy. Trump, himself, has blamed Democrats, while also suggesting it’s a negotiating tactic. Which is it Mr. President, a democrat law or a negotiating tactic to get your wall?

The policy to separate families, the one that has generated the heart wrenching pictures of children being ripped from the arms of their parents, has been Trump’s and Trump’s alone. The current administration bears the responsibility for the chaos, inhumanity, and moral depravity at the border.

To see many good people in Bardstown openly supporting this policy (using the same dehumanizing language the Nazis used to support and defend their detention of Jews) is at best rage inducing. But, I shouldn’t be surprised, as many of those I see supporting the policy to rip children from their mother’s arms are the same who defended the policy that prevents me from inviting my Iranian family to visit this country.

The bottom line is families should be kept together through the entire process—deportation or not. Separating them forces them to relive the stress and trauma they were fleeing.

Let me leave you with these two morsels. First, it’s important to remember the difference between us and them is we had the luxury of being born here.

And maybe the most disheartening thing is knowing if I had been born in Iran, many readers would have been content to do the same thing to me. Many you already feel that way about my cousins. That’s a shame.

America deserves better.

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The Immigrant You Know

This piece was originally published in the Kentucky Standard on February 21st, 2018.

When my parents moved to Bardstown in the summer of 1973, they were welcomed with the sort of generosity that has made the community famous. Bardstown High School had hired my father to be the new Math and Physics teacher.

Two weeks prior to the move, my parents had returned from a month-long pilgrimage to my father’s homeland. It was the first and only time he visited Iran since coming to the US. Just a few short months later, my older sister was born. For my parents, 1973 was a busy year.

Fast forward 45 years and it’s safe to say that both my parents have fully integrated into the community. They came seeking fertile ground to establish roots and found a community willing to accept them.

There’s no doubt that Bardstown has left an indelible image on each member of my family. No matter how far away we live, Bardstown will always be home.

I can’t speak for my siblings, but I am thankful for having grown up in Bardstown. Definitely, I would have probably enjoyed growing up in place far more cosmopolitan (DC or some European capital), but my life would have been fundamentally different and my Southern sensibilities would be nonexistent. And that would be a tragedy.

Our experience in the community could be used as an example showing the virtues of immigration and integration. A Muslim immigrant from Iran marries an American woman, raises a family, becomes a highly respected member of the community, all within America’s heartland. Every time I tell that story, I get a wide-eyed “WOW” or “That’s so cool” from listeners.

There aren’t many opportunities for people in the community to interact with foreigners, much less immigrants from Iran. But through my father the community was able to have an overwhelmingly positive experience. He tore down the media and political narrative through his selfless giving of time and energy to the betterment of the community—and to a large extent he still does.

So, it came as a surprise, over the last few years, to hear some within the community voicing their support for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, a local educator claimed that guns weren’t the problem, but immigration from the Middle East was. I guess they had forgotten about the man who had been their soccer coach.

Then there were the claims by another Bardstown resident that Muslims are terrorists and Iran funds terrorism. Sure, Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, but so did white Irish Catholics. Did we ban them? Sure, Iran supports terrorism, but so has America. Needless to say, that local had forgotten about their Math teacher.

Still others have tried to assuage the pain, anxiety, and real fear we (still) have over the last three years since the current President began his campaign. While voicing their support for the vitriol facing American families like mine, they couch it in the cliché “but y’all are different”, which makes little sense when fully considered.

It’s great that we weren’t considered like “the rest of ‘em.” But what happens when we leave Bardstown and we become “the rest of ‘em” for someone else. For example, my uncle in Iran has been planning on visiting the US and possibly traveling the country with my father. But since the rise of Trumpism, my father has told him not to come.

“Can you imagine Amir and me traveling through the Midwest? He doesn’t speak English. Two Middle Eastern men traveling, speaking Farsi, isn’t necessarily the best idea,” my dad told me.

He’s right.

The problem also exists in two other concepts. First, the idea that we all live in a bubble. It’s hard for most of us to think outside the small context in which our lives exist. So, when we think about our neighbors, we think about them within our own bubble. We rarely consider the realities in which they live.

Second, something that is somewhat connected, is the idea that shared experiences should help us build bridges and forge lasting relationships. If this were the case, then many in the community who both know and respect my father and voted for Trump should have had a hard time doing so. They would have understood the words Trump uses and the forces he’s unleashed would have a negative impact on the lives of my father and his family. But that didn’t happen.

Too many within in the community not considering anything outside their own bubble found it easy to dismiss the bonds my family had forged with this community, in order to embrace a slogan their own experience should have told them was untrue.

And now my family and I are forced to reconsider those shared experiences and question the sincerity of those who know sold us down the river for the cost of a false salve.

America needs immigrants to survive. Bardstown needs people like my father in order to fulfill its potential. We should be doing more to be like we were in 1973.

 

The President’s Words Matter

The President’s words matter.

Precisely because we hold our elected officials—especially our Presidents—to a higher standard, the comments by the current occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave strike a concerning cord.

As someone with a strongly held belief in the sanctity of the Presidency, I am deeply troubled by the President’s words last week and during his tenure overall.

While it’s true that our image abroad prior to the current administration’s shenanigans was, to put it lightly, complicated, there was still some amount of hope and inspiration engendered by the idea of America. Over the last year, as the international community has come to be more fully aware of Trump’s America and the Republican Vision for the future, that promise of opportunity and optimism is rapidly waning.

My father came to this country over a half century ago. I operate on the assumption that Trump considers my father’s place of birth a shithole, too. After all, he’s spent a significant portion of his campaign and time in office demonizing Iran in an effort to back out of a hard-earned diplomatic victory (one I had a small hand in by helping to organizing a push to convince Senators in Maryland and Virginia to support the accord).

If my father had arrived in an America with a similar environment as today, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Primarily, the Trumpian world view would have blocked my father from coming in the first place. And second, if he had made it, he would have likely steered clear of Trumpland.

My immediate family’s experience is wrapped firmly in the increasingly out of favor idea that America is a cocoon of hope, aspirational advancement, and opportunity. My father came at a time, when, even as we battled, sometimes in the streets, over the very definition of equal rights for all, there was a strong moral conviction to promoting this country as willing to open its arms to the globe and welcoming people of all shapes, sizes, races, and creeds. All this country asked in return was, to paraphrase Washington in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, that newcomers conduct themselves as good citizens and give this country their undying support.

For those that know my father, he is exceptional in his own right. But he is who he is precisely because of the opportunities afforded to him by this country when he immigrated nearly fifty-four years ago. And he is one of millions of immigrants who have come here, for a myriad of reasons, only to have conducted themselves with honor and dignity—many of whom living in Bardstown.

The President’s words last week debase the Presidency and the very principles our Founding Father’s sought to achieve. That little phrase he uttered, so casually, dehumanizes the very people seeking refuge in this country’s opportunities and inspired by the idea of America. It matters little that these types of phrases are used across the country in locker rooms, carpools, and beer halls. There, they remain nothing but banter by cocksure citizens with little to no power to change policy. But when spoken by the President, the person responsible for representing all of America and being our voice domestically and abroad, the signal becomes all too sinister. Not only do they upset long standing decorum of a polished and respectful Executive, they have further tarnished our image abroad. And they could ultimately embolden those citizens above to take action against their immigrant neighbor.

Is this the example of leadership we want to create for younger generations? Is this the precedent we want to set for America’s new image abroad—xenophobic, bigoted, and crass? Should it matter, as David Rothkopf, former editor of Foreign Policy, asks, that the President reflexively discounts vast swaths of the globe simply because of their race, culture, or religion?

You should be answering with a resounding No, No, and Yes.

Last night, my wife reminded me of the Bible verse (yes, this Muslim reads the Bible) Micah 6:8: He has showed you, O Man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with God?

We all, our President included, would do better, if we tried, even as flawed beings, to follow the inherent command in the verse above. Otherwise future generations may be imperiled.

They deserve better.

There’s a Picture of Me Somewhere in Damascus

My picture hangs somewhere in Damascus.

Or at least that’s what I’d like to think.

After five years of war, it’s probably long gone–ensconced along with someone’s valuables on their journey to a safe haven, destroyed by a rocket blast, or something else entirely.

Thirteen years ago, while I was studying in Regensburg,Germany, I met two Syrians. They were sitting behind my classmates and me, when we attended Bayern Munich’s opening game of the Champions League Group Stage against Glasgow Celtic at Munich’s Olympic Stadium.

It was my first and only Champions League match. Bayern won 2-1 on a 86th minute goal from Roy Makaay that, if truth be told, the Celtic goalkeeper should have saved.

I remember being impressed by the lung capacity of the Celtic supporters. They never stopped their full-throttled support and even though they were outnumbered by the Bayern fans they were louder and more boisterous than their counterparts.

The first half came and went. No goals, no real action with the exception of the noise of the crowd and the sense of anticipation, surely there’d be a goal or two.

My friends and I hit the concession stands at half time. The booze we had consumed prior to the game needed to be absorbed otherwise things would go downhill and fast.

As we reclaimed our seats, I noticed a duo sitting in the row behind us. They reminded me of some of my dad’s relatives–burly, hairy, mustachioed, olive skin tone, but decked out in Bayern gear. Maybe they were Turkish.

We acknowledged each other with a head nod.

As the second half wore on, it became clear that Bayern wasn’t at their best. When Celtic struck first, in the  56th minute, the fans weren’t pleased. Bayern might lose this game.

The duo behind us leans forward and says something in, what I decided later was, Arabic. I nod politely, understanding that they were likely speaking to how poorly Bayern was playing.

They say something else and it becomes clear I need to clarify that I don’t speak Arabic.

“I’m sorry, do you speak English or German.”

“English, english,” one of them says. “Bayern play’s not so good. Disappointing.”

It was clear their English wasn’t the best.

Attributing to the lingering buzz and new found confidence originating from our mutual support of Bayern, I ask, “Where’re you from?”

“Damascus! Syria,” they both say, adding the Syria part just in case I didn’t know Damascus is in Syria. I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Where you come from?”

“I’m American. Studying in Germany.”

“Ah, okay, my friend,” one says, nodding his head, still confused. They hadn’t seen that coming either.

“But my father is Iranian.”

“Yessss, yesss!” one responds excitedly. That was their light bulb moment. Things started to make sense. “We are brother’s, family.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “There are Bayern fans in Syria?”

“Yes, many.”

“Did you come for vacation?”

“No just for game. We go back tomorrow.”

“When did you get here?”

“This morning.”

“Short trip.”

“Yes, no enough money. Family. Work. House. Expensive,” one of them said, making the international sign for money by rubbing his thumb on his index and middle finger and sounding a little like Zorba the Greek. I was waiting for him to say, ‘The whole catastrophe.’

There was a pause in our conversation. Bayern had finally decided to show up and was having a go at the Celtic defense.

In the 73rd minute, FC Bayern forward Roy Makaay pounced on a poor clearance, hitting a first time volley from just outside the box that beat the keeper near post.

Bayern fans went crazy. My new Syrian friends grabbed me as we were celebrating with those around us. We high-fived, hugged, screamed.

Several minutes later, in the 86th minute, Makaay was perched on the right, just outside the box, preparing to send in a free kick to his awaiting teammates. He’s left footed, so his cross was swung in towards the goalkeeper. (In-swinging free kicks tend to cause more confusion and lead to more scrappy goals.)

And that’s exactly what happened. The Bayern players attempting to make contact with the cross missed getting a touch on the ball. By the time the goalkeeper dove to block it, the ball had bounced and squirted into the net. The crowd erupted. The 5,000 plus Celtic fans looked on in disbelief. My new Syrian friends and I rejoiced and hugged once more.

Four minutes–and stoppage time–later the game was over.

As the fans were filing out of the stadium, the Syrians tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, one said, “We want picture with our Iranian brother.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

They handed the camera to my classmates, who took several pictures. After that we went out separate ways. The Syrians, who knows where. My classmates and I off to find our way back to Regensburg–which is another story entirely.

In the eight intervening years, between that evening and the start of the Syrian Civil War, I didn’t think about those guys very often. Every once in a while, I’d tell this story, but it was usually as an aside to a larger story about going to my only Champions League game and never the central narrative.

But over the last five years, as the Civil War consumed the country and the death toll continued to rise, refugees fleeing to any place deemed safer than where they were, takfiris streaming into the frontlines, atrocities by all sides being reported, I can’t help but often think of them. That story, that interaction, has overtaken the Bayern v Celtic game and become the focal point of that evening.

Where are they now? Are they safe? Did they flee Damascus? Or is their neighborhood one of those that is relatively safe? Were they apart of the protests? Did they want to oust Assad? Or were they supporters of his government? Did they defect and fight on the side of the Syrian Free Army? Or were they conscripted into Assad’s Army? Or did they join forces with one of the Islamist groups? Were they killed in battle? Did they make it to Europe? Are they free to watch Bayern games? Do they remember meeting me? Did they tell friends about their meeting me, when they showed them pictures from the game? Did they hang our picture on a wall or their refrigerator? Did they take it with them when they fled? Are they safe now?

Part of me knows, I’ll never find any answers to those questions. In the meantime, I wait. Hoping they survived and are still watching FC Bayern games.