hirty years ago, the United States, then under the leadership of president Ronald Reagan, gave my family refuge. We settled in Toledo, Ohio, with help from the UNHCR and through a policy decision to shelter refugees of special humanitarian concern, the refugee act of 1980. Years later, my parents relearned their craft of medicine. I grew up to become a teacher of English literature. My brother, born one month after we settled in the States, is now a programmer for Google.
It’s worth noting, to any Republicans out there reading this, that the exemplar of presidential leadership your party always allude to, during every election, would have had strong words for what your party, under Trump and the silent acquiescence of its members, is doing now. In 1981, President Reagan said this about America’s relationship to refugees:
“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”
He said this during a time when sentiment towards Vietnamese was worse than what’s felt against Syrian refugees now. And towards those drug addicted rapists from Mexico, no mention of walls. Far from it:
“We have a special relationship with our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Our immigration policy should reflect this relationship.”
An American couple took my family in and hosted us, helped us to settle into the culture and find basic jobs to support ourselves. As mentioned, my mother gave birth a month later to the first American citizen in our family, my little brother. We named him after the American man who hosted us, William, or Bill. Bill and Cathy were generous with their home and Cathy, herself an immigrant from Germany, cooked us the German version of hamburger. My first taste of this “American” meal was made in its German form. My mother, in return, made caramelized pork chops, and we shared the space, and broke bread together, and felt we were one family, in Toledo, Ohio.
We stayed with our hosts for three months until we could get on our feet, and, remaining in the U.S. on our green cards, learned to live, and thrive. I became a citizen automatically years later, when my parents took the citizenship test and passed.
Ohio, as we know, voted for Trump this election. It’s part of the Rust Belt coalition of states that swung the election in his favor. It was also where I spent my childhood, where I learned to bowl, to turkey bowl, drink soda pop, get into Thanksgiving food comas, where I played hoops and watched the Pistons on tv, where I pledged allegiance to the flag every morning in school.
In light of what has been going on with this un-American, unconstitutional, horrifyingly destructive presidency, I wish to offer my memory of a past when cooler, calmer heads in government prevailed, when the country that adopted me, my country, honoured the age old code of kindness and civility towards exiles and refugees, sad sojourners whose homes were destroyed by war or who uprooted for fear of oppression or political reprisals.
Hospitality, or “xenia” in Greece, has as its root, xenos, the word for guest, or foreigner. The fear and mistreatment of such peoples now compose the current state of affairs in my country. This fear is directed by the president, amplified by his tweets and executive orders, and allowed to take on further shape and form by the silence of politicians who refuse to denounce such direct, brazen, oppressive racism. Misdirected anger and outright xenophobia are the current spirits of the day. They should not prevail.
Edward Said once wrote that exile from one’s country is… “strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience. It is the un-healable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” America, and its leaders, acknowledged this sadness thirty years ago, and gave the Vietnamese boat people, adrift and rudderless, a chance to make of her a new native abode. Thirty years ago, my parents and I were amongst the war weary, the tempest tossed, huddled masses, feared and distrusted around the world. America gave my family rest and solace. Eventually, she took a chance and embraced us. We made of her a new home.