The day I reported aboard my first duty station in the Coast Guard, I pulled refugees out of the ocean. This was 1994. They were coming from Cuba on anything that could float. I was 19 and trying not to throw up or embarrass myself and failed on both counts. This began the most miserable year of my life: social ostracism, frequent seasickness, depression. But I never, ever once questioned the value or importance of the work we did. And for all my complaints about my shipmates and how they treated me, their professionalism, fairness, and humanity toward the people we pulled out of the water never wavered.
We turned away no one. There were days where the water was full of makeshift rafts as far as the eye could see. The only inhospitable thing we did was to pat people down as they came onto our boats. We received orders to destroy any household pets that they brought along on those rafts. The captain — a guy as right-wing as anyone I’ve ever met, who ranted about abortionists and Bill Clinton and whatever — didn’t even blink before dropping that order in the trash. I remember finding only one dog, but we held onto him until we found someone to take care of him.
Right and left wing meant nothing in the face of an ocean full of refugees on rafts. Even guys who treated me like crap still had the humanity to take care of people in need. It went on for a month, and this was after they’d spent all summer picking up refugees from Haiti while I was in boot camp.
Now it’s 2015, I’m 41, and I’m disgusted at how loudly so many people in my country — especially our so-called “leaders,” and particularly the “leaders” who paint themselves as strong guardians of freedom — say we shouldn’t take in refugees fleeing a horrific war where combatants on more than one side are in a race toward the very bottom. War is inherently bad, and even “good guys” do awful things, yet Da’esh and Assad have genuinely put their backs into it.
The only difference I see between the Cuban refugees I picked up and the people fleeing Syria is that the latter are fleeing something much worse. None of the other differences matter. Religion? Language? Doesn’t make a damn difference. Or at least it shouldn’t, but clearly for all too many Americans, those differences mean everything. Equality for all, as long as you’re just like me, I guess.
I’ve seen people say we shouldn’t take any refugees because a tiny handful might be dangerous. These are usually the same people who want to do literally nothing about the constant mass shootings in this country. Regardless of the fact that Islam and terrorism are NOT REMOTELY the same thing, we already live under the constant threat of being shot for no good reason by someone we don’t even know. We’ve accepted that as the price of “freedom,” right?
I’ve seen others say we should only take in the Christians — usually the same people who cry out “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. (And yes, for the record: Black Lives Matter. I’ll say it anytime.) So clearly “All Lives Matter” to them as long as those lives share the same faith. Screw the rest of them.
And I’ve seen more people ask why we should take in refugees when we already have so many homeless people in this country. Sometimes they even want to specify how many of these homeless people are veterans. Yet when it’s time to do something about that problem, they aren’t interested. “We should take care of our own first” is a meaningless argument when the people making it aren’t interested in taking care of our own, refugees or no. Don’t tell me refugees will take up millions of dollars better spent on Americans in need when you would never consider spending that money on those Americans in the first place.
In addition to my time in the Coast Guard, I’ve done some time as a teacher in public school classrooms. I’ve taught refugee kids. I mean no-shit refugees, kids who’ve spent much of their youth in UN camps and whose experiences and losses make the worst moments of my life look like a Disney comedy by comparison. I’ve taught in rooms full of multiple different accents and Somalis and Russians and Southern Asians and kids from Mexico and points further south. Hijabs everywhere. And you know what? They’re GREAT KIDS. They’re HAPPY TO BE HERE. They’re poor and often they’re behind the academic curve because they’re still working on language acquisition as high school students. And they’re a joy to work with, because they know how good they’ve got it just by being here.
One day I told a teacher how a kid in my class pulled me aside to warn me that some of the words in my vocabulary lesson were dirty words when spoken in Somali. Nothing scandalous, but he saved me from a lot of disruptive giggling from students. Nicest kid I’ve ever met. That teacher then told me he was one of the last of the Lost Boys of Sudan and that he’d seen his whole family murdered. Another guy, this one 17 and from Somalia, busted his ass on an essay about what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a computer programmer, and even being a low-level programmer would be wonderful, because where he grew up the most any boy could aspire to be was a gunman.
So I’ve got all that service in my past. I’ve got all this pride in my country. And today I see 26 elected governors and a whole field of presidential candidates in a pandering, pants-shitting panic about taking in refugees from a horrific war.
This, by the way, after we did so much to wreck the region and then abandoned the people who helped us on our way out. Syrian refugees? We couldn’t even be bothered to take in the interpreters and others who worked with us in Iraq.
What the hell is wrong with us?
There are only three reasons to turn these refugees away: bigotry, heartlessness, or cowardice. None of these are good reasons. I’m disgusted with how many people out there have decided to embrace all three.
You aren’t strong or united against terror when your policies and your rhetoric are based on fear.
(A quick reminder: I have comments set to require approval primarily to avoid spam. You’d think I’m in dire need of prescription meds from the sort of spam comments I get. I’ll publish comments, I just can’t promise to do it on a regular schedule.)