How to Become Woke

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Idelette McVicker asked me to contribute to an ongoing conversation about race and issues of representation at the magazine she edits, SheLoves. I love the way that the women at SheLoves want to address these conversations humbly and with respect. I wrote the following piece for them:

How to Become Woke

My college students introduced me to the word “woke” a few years ago. The term describes people who are, as Urban Dictionary puts it, in a state of “being aware” and “knowing what’s going on in a community” in relation to racism and social injustice. I know it’s a bit awkward when I incorporate that term in our class discussions (I still remember the way one of my professors carefully said, “Oh, I’m sorry. That was my mistake. It was MY BAD!” So terrible.) Even if my students cringe and smile when I say it, however, I like “woke.” It describes a sense of being awake, of not wanting to have your head in the sand.

Following the horrific violence and racism of the last few weeks and years, I have seen a deepening desire on the part of many of the white people I know to become woke. I want to be woke myself. I want to know what words I can use, what action I can take, to let people of color know I support them. I want to stand alongside them without them feeling that I as a white woman am doing what so many white people have often done: appropriating the stories of people of color or speaking for them. I want to listen and learn. I want to advocate for and support.

I want to know on a practical level how to do that: When should I speak? When should I be silent? What can I say? What should I never say?

Read the rest of the article over at SheLoves.

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We Are the Hunger Games

I woke up this morning to see that the leading headline from the latest Republican debate was a middle school boy conversation about who was the better-endowed candidate. There were several issues that were ignored while Donald Trump “guaranteed” that his was just fine, thank you, but the candidates all had plenty of time for plenty of schoolyard insults against each other.

As someone who once taught middle school, I wanted to make them write lines: “I will not make any remarks on the size of Donald Trump’s hands” or “I will learn to say ‘H’ at the front of ‘huge.’”

I think, like a lot of people do, that we’ve reached a new low in our society when comparing penis sizes is frontline news at the Republican debate for the highest office in the land.

The problem is ours, though. They would not resort to these middle school antics if we, the US public, did not sit around with baited breath, ready to be shocked about it.

Shame on them for acting like children.

But shame on us for giving them attention.

Our society is to blame for reveling in the spectacle of it all.

*****

Last year in my Literature as Activism class, I taught The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I paired it with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Indian Stories and other books designed to change cultural values. My students had mostly read the book before, but this time we took it apart, using close reading skills to identify what Collins was critiquing about our society.

The most damning aspect of the Capitol People is their desire for spectacle.

Because they only care about the spectacle, they ignore the fact that people are dying in order to give them good sport.

They sentimentalize the starvation of entire regions, squashing characters’ struggles into compelling media stories for a stereotype-seeking audience.

They obsess over gorgeous clothes, gorge themselves on rich foods, cake themselves in glittery make-up.

Minutes away from their city, people are dying from lack of basic food, sanitation, and education.

The Capitol People can’t be bothered to change their focus from the spectacle in front of them.

*****

Last week my two oldest daughters wanted to make a video to tell people not to vote for Donald Trump. I handed them my phone and let them have at it, curious what they would say. We don’t talk about politics much in our house, so what they knew about Donald Trump was mostly from kids at school. I wanted to hear what they were picking up from the conversations of kids around them.

I didn’t upload the video because, in this day and age, I thought there was a chance it could go viral and I don’t want that for my kids. But I couldn’t help agreeing with their cogent arguments.

They are 7 and 9. They understood it perfectly.

My 7-year-old said that bullies were not allowed in schools and that her school is “No Place for Hate” and that our country should also be “No Place for Hate” and maybe we should all wear white t-shirts to remind each other that bullies aren’t allowed.

She told the story of two of her Mexican American friends who are worried that they will have to go back to the land of their ancestors even though their parents have lived in Texas for generations because Donald Trunk (as she calls him) hates people from Mexico. How could you hate them, she asked? That doesn’t make sense.

My 9-year-old took up the video and told the story of two of her friends who were heroes who came to the US because they had helped the US army try to bring freedom to another country. (These friends are Iraqi refugees and the story she told was one she’d heard from them; they are deeply patriotic to both of their countries, but love the US enormously.) Maybe Donald Trump didn’t understand, she said. That’s why she needed to make the video, she said—so she could let him know that Iraqi refugees were OK to come to the US and that Muslims are people too.

And then she asked Donald Trump not to hate brown people because she has a sister from China who has brown skin. And she told about how a friend at school told her that Donald Trump made fun of people with special needs and asked if he wanted to meet her sister. Just because she had special needs and talks a bit differently doesn’t mean we should make fun of her, she told him.

I couldn’t really see to turn the phone off when they were done because I was in tears.

*****

Spectacle-based TV shows like The Bachelor or The Kardashians have for too long been our models for what is culturally valuable. No wonder one of the top candidates is a reality-TV star.

While this spectacle plays out, cholera is still quietly killing people in Haiti.

More than 250,000 refugees have fled Burundi since last April.

Refugees are laying down on railroad tracks trying to gain entrance to any country, anywhere, any way.

How in the world am I supposed to explain to my girls when they’re old enough to read The Hunger Games that what should feel like a caricature is in fact just the way the world actually works?

No, we don’t watch children killing each other on TV.

But we do ignore the children migrating the Texas border every summer just to find some sense of stability or food or money rather than facing certain death at the hands of gang members or from lack of basic food, sanitation, and education.

We do ignore the refugees who tell us the reason they leave their countries is to save their children.

We do ignore the children in this country who need access to basic health care or regular food.

We’re so busy watching the spectacle, listening to the insults, tweeting and sharing and viral-izing the antics and political posturing, that we ignore the biggest and most important issues that this campaign should be about.

Last night’s debate and today’s media coverage prove: we are the Hunger Games people.

Dear Texas Friends on Super Tuesday

I’m going to get political for just a minute and don’t worry–it’s a message of real hope. This last week my friend Caren and I interviewed some Iraqi refugees who were friends of friends. I apologized to them for some of the things they had heard from politicians leading our state and leading our nation.

Texas has always, and I mean ALWAYS, welcomed refugees with open arms and in the last six months those of us who love refugees have watched in horror as the political conversation has turned. I don’t need to remind you that Donald Trump wants to make all Muslims register with the government, among the many vile things he has said.

You know how these new Iraqi friends responded? With joy and an almost effusive belief in the system. Here’s what they reminded Caren​ and me: For all of the ugliness of our political season, for all of the issues with gun control, for all of our economic woes and poverty and divisions, our country is still so remarkably peaceful.

We all agree to abide by civil laws, which means even if we disagree with a political candidate, we still respect his right to say the terrible things he says. My refugee friends can sleep at night, they told us, after years of sleeplessness. There are no walls, no guards, no terrorist gangs controlling various sectors and waiting to massacre people just because they have a different political belief.

Here’s what surprised me: I was not the first, nor will I be the last, to speak out against racism to these Muslim Iraqi friends. They repeated so many times how warm and welcoming their reception has been. Texans know how to take care of refugees, y’all. The governor might be trying to block them from entering the state, but there are so many of us who are actively resisting just by responding with kindness when we hear someone is from Iraq.

Kindness and peace are powerful political tools.

We live in such a peaceful country. We have the freedom to choose whatever we want to be. For heaven’s sake, I have a PhD in poetry–a country that can employ me (and I’ve been gainfully employed my entire adult life) is a country that values art and higher thinking and aesthetic ideals.

We so often forget when we listen to the fearmongering media that there is real good in this country and in our political system.

I went into our conversation last week ashamed of our country and left proud to be an American (and yes, the soundtrack from Lee Greenwood was playing in my mind).

I was proud that my foremothers fought so hard to give me the right to vote.

I was proud that our forefathers thought to give us checks and balances.

I was proud of how many people are speaking out against racism and hatred with kindness.

I was proud that my new friends saw what I couldn’t see–we are people of peace who have everything we need to make a difference by abiding by civil laws.

Today I’m going to vote against Donald Trump by voting for a candidate who has a better track record of supporting immigrants and refugees.

I’m not advocating that you vote for a particular political party. If I’m being totally honest, I can see good things about both. I’m tired of the polarization. I tend to vote Democrat but respect the tar out of several people who vote Republican. They’re thoughtful, kind, loving people who have reached their views from a well-considered position. We should go vote together.

In this country, we can.

All of the refugees I know are people of peace. They appreciate and value what they’ve been given when they receive the chance to start over in a country of peace. I’m thinking of them today when I vote.

I call all Texans to get out and stop the maliciousness and racism and bigotry and hatred espoused by Donald Trump (and sometimes Ted Cruz, frankly). I call on you to vote for someone who is a member of Team Reasonable.

But don’t do it just because you’re angry. And don’t do it just because you’re afraid. Do it with joy.

We are blessed and lucky to live in a land of peace.

Today we can use our vote to change the tide.

 

Dear Priceline: Failed Adoptions Are Not Funny

Dear Whoever at Priceline Thought This Commercial Was a Good Idea:

I get it, Super Bowl commercials are supposed to be edgy. And any attention is good attention, right?

Except in your latest commercial, Priceline, an ad called “Baby,” failed adoptions are the source of the joke. And failed adoptions are never funny—they’re not funny for the parents and they’re not funny for the children, they’re tragic and awful and upsetting on every front.

Adoption itself is so complicated and intimate, so full of grief and loss.

What made you think this was a good idea? Let’s talk a little bit, shall we? Let’s talk about adoption and humor and how tired we adoptive parents are of having to explain what adoption is and what it’s not and what’s OK and what’s not OK.

I’ll go ahead and summarize my point for you, Priceline: your commercial is not OK.

The commercial was part of a new series that is supposed to demonstrate the “worst possible thing that could happen as a result of missing any trip,” according to BBDO executive creative director Chris Beresford-Hill. These ads are going in a different direction than the mildly amusing and rather pedantic ones Priceline Negotiator ones headed by William Shatner. I get it, you wanted something different; I’m kind of tired of William Shatner too.

In the two other ads, which are still awkward, the worst possible things are weird, but no one is hurt. “Cousins” shows second cousins who decide to take a trip to a wedding; the man is introduced to the woman and she discovers he’s moving to her area. Had they not taken the trip, the fantasy version has them meeting and presumably hooking up at a bar. The point is that incest is always best avoided. OK. Sure.

In “Nana,” a grandson decides to go help his grandmother rather than leaving her to the tender mercies of an identity thief who is there to hang up her mirror. Not funny, but innocuous. Everyone should spend time with their grandparents.

But “Baby,” from the very beginning, is offensive. You hear the voiceover: “Your adoption application is approved! You can meet the little guy first in Eastern Europe!”

While happily tucking in the sheets on the toddler bed, the pre-adoptive couple decides to book a trip on Priceline to go check out their child before bringing him home.

Right? The couple treats the child like a used car they’ve seen online—looks good in the pictures, honey, but we should really take it for a test drive and go kick the tires a bit before we bring it home!

It plays into the terrible idea of adoptive parents as consumers who only want the “right” child for us. This concept is why so many adoptive parents end up fielding questions about how much our children “cost.” (Some of my fellow adoptive moms do a great job of redirecting that one by explaining adoption fees and how the money goes to the case workers or adoption agencies involved that keep adoptions ethical; I admit, the time I heard that question, I just looked at the woman at the store like she had a bug on her face because I couldn’t bring myself to handle it politely in front of my kids.)

So let’s be clear, Priceline—BUYER’S REMORSE is NOT what happens to parents who don’t take a Priceline trip to see “the little guy” before bringing him home.

(Also, do you realize this kind of trip isn’t even possible? I would have give anything at all to have been able to see my daughter in the months we waited between accepting her file and finally being issued Travel Approval to go get her. Those months were especially painful to me—she was ours, legally and emotionally, and she was not home with us starting the long difficult process of grafting into our new family. We can’t just book a trip on Priceline to go see our kids.)

But that’s not even the worst part. The couple, having taken the trip, comes home looking a bit shell shocked. “That would have been bad,” the wife says. “SO glad we went,” responds the husband, pulling the suitcase into the door. “Yeah,” she responds, zoning off to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t gone.

I’m sorry, Priceline, I just want to pause again—you’re telling me that a couple, having made the gut-wrenching decision not to adopt after filling out years of paperwork, casually walks in the front door and all but high fives each other that they made the right choice?

Are you serious? Do you have any idea what kind of emotions you’re dealing with here?

Adoptive parents decide not to bring home children for all manner of reasons, but they never make that decision lightly. You are writing a commercial that touches on the enormous grief of infertility or lost dreams or extremely painful decisions that a couple makes about bringing a child home. THIS IS NOT FUNNY TERRITORY, Priceline. Nothing about that moment is anywhere close to funny.

What happens next, the daydream the would-be adoptive mom goes down, makes it worse: the pre-adoptive couple, had they not taken a trip with Priceline, ends up with an adult man in a toddler bed speaking in a Russian accent over the baby monitor asking the mom for sexual favors.

The point of the ad, as near as I can tell, is that a trip with Priceline got them out of a terrible adoption.

I can’t even begin to educate you enough about why the adult in the toddler bed isn’t funny. Most families who have gone through an international adoption end up with children who are different than what they expected; the unexpected is part of the process and good adoption agencies prepare parents as best they can.

The unexpected parts come because some children’s birth ages aren’t known (what you seem to be playing off of with the adult man who comes home instead of the toddler the parents expect). Or a child might have had sexual abuse or trauma (which is what makes your sexual innuendos especially offensive). The children might have special needs, some of which the parents know about, some of which are surprises. And so when you imply that parents will get the unexpected and wish they’d just taken a trip on Priceline first, you are hitting some of the hardest parts of adoption.

All parents have to learn to deal with the unexpected—it’s a universal part of parenting. Adoptive parents of older children who are adopted internationally have extremely difficult unexpected situations that come up which they must be prepared to face. They have to ask themselves tough questions, identify their own issues, come to grips with their own idealistic expectations.

You cannot, you must not, use this experience as a joke.

Let’s go back to what you’re implying is best case scenario, a failed adoption. It is actually a horrendous choice. All of us in the adoption community know of failed adoptions, of parents who for some reason are not able to parent a child or of an unethical adoption agency that misrepresents a situation.

The reasons why failed adoptions happen are numerous and always tragic. At a core level, a child does not have a family and a family does not have a child when a failed adoption occurs. Whatever the reason, wherever the fault lies, it is always deeply painful.

Adoptive parents have enough to deal with and our children have enough to bear by undergoing the painful process without your ridiculous commercial making it worse.

But that’s still not the worst part of your ad. The very worst part is this:

Some kid out there watched that commercial with his family and secretly wondered, “Do my parents regret adopting me? If they could have taken a Priceline trip and met me in advance, would they have come back relieved instead of bringing me home?”

That child got the message that BBDO executive creative director Chris Beresford-Hill says was the point of the ad campaign and took it to heart.

He heard that he is the “worst possible thing that could happen as a result of missing any trip.”

Shame on you, Priceline.

For the pain that you caused that child.

For the pain you caused the parents who made the hard choice not to go through with an adoption.

For the pain of the child whose failed adoption meant she lost her one chance at having a family because her special needs or age or circumstances were misrepresented or more than the adoptive parent realized.

For the pain another adoptive family has to bear when they bring home who has experienced a failed adoption.

There are layers of grief and pain you slide past glibly, all of them complicated, none of them funny.

On behalf of all us who are part of the adoption community, whether adoptive parents or birth parents or caseworkers or children, you should have known better. I, for one, am never using you again.

In disgust,

Jessica

 

The High Cost of Anti-Refugee Rhetoric

Refugee communities around the United States are living in fear because of the staunch anti-refugee rhetoric being used by politicians. Unfortunately, the state of Texas, where I live and where I’ve worked with refugees for almost a decade, is at the forefront of this ugly language. Governor Abbott and others at the state capitol are working vehemently to prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from being resettled in our state. In November, Congressman Michael McCaul from Texas successfully introduced the poorly named American Security Against Foreign Enemies (or SAFE) Act to the House, where it passed. This Wednesday it is being voted on in the Senate.

I hope it doesn’t pass in the Senate; I can’t imagine it will get a veto-proof 67 votes, but these are strange times and it might. I’m afraid it will pass, but I’m even more afraid of a prolonged debate.

The longer we allow refugees to be a political issue that is hotly debated in our country, the higher the cost to actual refugees.

My refugee friends, who fled persecution and violence because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, understand that the rhetoric around them is heating up. They have been in this situation before in their home countries; they are becoming increasingly afraid. They have every right to be. The emotional and psychological damage is high.

More importantly, the physical danger of using dehumanizing language about refugees is very real.

Here are some examples of potential or real violence against refugees, friends of my friends, in the last few months in Texas alone:

  • In Austin, at an English class attended by newly-resettled refugees, a man showed up just a few days before Christmas with a knife strapped under his shirt sleeve demanding to see the Syrian refugees. A refugee from a country in Africa thought quickly and sent him to another part of the building, then told the teachers, who called the police. The building went into lockdown. The level of panic hit the roof. All refugees have fled war or violence; almost every refugee I know has some form of PTSD. That quick-acting ESL student possibly saved lives, but the emotional and psychological affects of feeling under threat from armed men is still being felt in our community today.
  • In Abilene, a white man threatened a refugee woman in a headscarf leaving work, telling her he would pour acid on her face. She was threatened for being a Muslim; she happened to be a refugee.
  • In Dallas last winter, an Iraqi refugee was killed while taking pictures of the snow. He had never seen snow before. He and his wife had been separated for more than a year and had just been reunited days before the snowstorm; he died later in the hospital.

I know the people teaching the class in Austin and the women in Abilene is a friend of a friend. The situation in Dallas, which made national news, highlights the high cost of speaking of refugees as if they are all a threat. In Texas, too often perceived threats become targets.

For the eight years I’ve worked with refugees, that word has always been synonymous with “brave survivor” in every context I’ve ever used it.

In the last few months, I’ve watched in frustration and fear as the term “refugee” has become a buzzword meaning “terrorist” or “threat” or “other” in my state.

Refugees are not threats, but they are threatened.

Several people have asked me what they can do to help. I finally have an action item for you: call your Senator this week and tell them to vote against H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act.

CWS Global, an activism and advocacy group, sent out the following email. I’m quoting from it directly because I thought their information was so useful. Call your senator ( 1-866-940-2439and let them know you and your community are prepared to welcome Syrian refugees and that you do not support this bill.

Let’s make it clear: we as a country do not support anti-refugee legislation or political rhetoric.

***

From the CWS Global Newsletter:

Information and Scripts for the Vote on H.R. 4038

The U.S. Senate plans to vote this coming Wednesday, January 20th on H.R. 4038, “The American Security against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act,” which would grind to a halt the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This bill was passed by the House of Representatives in November, so it is critical that it not pass the Senate. Such proposals and the anti-refugee sentiment that has accompanied them are morally reprehensible and go against who we are as a nation. It is critical that Senators hear from their constituents NOW.

Call your Senators TODAY & EVERY DAY leading up to the vote: Urge them to vote NO to H.R. 4038 and any legislation that would stop, pause or defund the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Call to be Connected to Your Senator: 1-866-940-2439

Sample Script: “I’m a constituent from [State] and I support the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I am opposed to any bill that would stop or pause the resettlement of refugees of any nationality or religion. I urge the Senator to vote NO to H.R. 4038, The American SAFE Act.”

Helpful Points:

Below are some helpful points on the security checks involved in refugee resettlement, which is the focus of this legislation. The most important points to mention, however, are your story and why your community wants to welcome Syrian refugees.

  • The U.S. government handpicks the refugees who resettle here, and the U.S. resettlement process has the most rigorous screening process in the world.
  • Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people to come to the United States, undergoing interagency screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense, National Counter Terrorism Center and multiple intelligence agencies, including biometric checks, forensic document testing, medical tests and in-person interviews.
  • Continuing refugee resettlement while maintaining national security is not an either/or situation. The United States can continue to welcome refugees while also continuing to ensure national security. We can and must do both.

Social Media:

You can also tweet your Senators and your network using the sample post below and a photo of yourself or your community: “.@SENATOR, Our community is ready to welcome #Syrian #refugees. Vote NO to H.R. 4038. #RefugeesWelcome #AmericaWelcomes!

Follow @RCUSA_DC, @CWS_IRP on Twitter and “like” Refugee Council USA on Facebook for up-to-date alerts.

Who We Talk about When We Talk about Refugees

The Republican debate has me very afraid. You may not know anyone who is saying awful things about (or to) refugees or Muslims, and you might not have refugees on your speed dial, so this might not feel like a pressing issue to you. But the rhetoric and campaign ads are revving up, not dying down. Though there has been some serious pushback, politicians from Abbott to Trump are getting the message that it is politically savvy to come down hard  against refugees, that if they appear weak, they might lose political points, or come across as not valuing the public’s opinion on this “issue.”

This is not an issue, these are people. The way we talk about refugees affects real people. Immeasurably. Irrevocably.

Frankly, I’m much more concerned about the safety of my refugee and Muslim friends in a political climate increasingly marked by hatred, racism, and xenophobia than I am the remote chance that some terrorist has decided it is worth enduring the extensive vetting process to come to the US as a refugee.

(They won’t do that, by the way; it’s too difficult and risky and there are other, much easier avenues to come to the US. The Paris terrorists were all Belgian and French citizens. But no one gives us a play-by-play update of the numbers of Europeans coming to Texas without a tourist visa because they don’t need one. Each Syrian refugee coming to Texas, however, has been counted and described in detail by the media.)

I’m not a journalist. I’m not taking pictures of asylum-seekers in Greece or telling you the details of a family’s harrowing flight away from ISIS. I’d like to be, in some ways, but that’s not my story.

I’ve spent years studying issues of representation; I know there are real problems that arise when we represent people poorly. I’ve also spent years of my life with refugees.

The following details were gained through  countless interactions and carefully built relationships. Day in and day out, I’ve known people, met with them, loved their babies, grieved with them. These stories aren’t sensationalism or poverty tourism, these are just our lives together. They aren’t only refugees, they are friends of mine. My life is richer for knowing them.

Refugees have reason to fear, whether it be hate crimes or hateful speech; we have nothing to fear from them.

***

When we talk about refugees, we’re talking about my friend Nen.* He and his wife were married for almost twenty years when his daughter was born, on the same day as my middle daughter. His daughter is the light of Nen’s life–she is named after him and looks like him. Her big eyes are serious, but even as a baby, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was the center of the world for her father and mother. She still is.

Nen calls me “My sister!” every time he sees me. While I was starting an economic development project with Burmese refugees, Nen lived in an apartment below some of the artisans. Every time he was home, he’d yell, “My sister! Hello!” and I would stop by to chat.

He wasn’t always home. He worked two jobs, one as a busboy at a soup and salad restaurant, another in housekeeping at a hotel. Both jobs were beneath someone as highly educated as Nen. They were all he could find; he became a refugee and his degrees and life experience meant very little in his new country.

And he would work any job to give a good life to his little girl.

He became a refugee because he was a translator for the US army in Iraq. He believed in the causes they were fighting for; he lost family members because of his translation work. He had to scrabble to be resettled here, even though he gave up more in service to the US than most US citizens ever will.

He’s a hardworking, charismatic man who loves the US with all his heart and has lost everything to violent extremism in his country.

He lived in fear for years to serve the US army as a translator. He doesn’t deserve to face more fear in the US now.

***

We’re talking about my friend Leila.* She was also a translator for the US army in Iraq and she is one of the sharpest women I know. When we first met, her impeccable English was underscored by an easy laugh and smile crinkles around her piercing green eyes.

The skills that got her good jobs in Iraq–namely, speaking English–didn’t help her in the US. She struggled to accept basic housekeeping jobs; like Nen, these were significantly below her education and talent levels, but she took them anyway to feed her family.

One night, on the way home from the grocery store, she was followed by some white men. They threw rocks and told her to go back to where she came from. It frightened her; she struggled with PTSD because of the horrific experiences that made her leave Iraq. After that incident, she barely left the house for months.

saw my gracious, easy, laughing friend disappear into a shell of fear.

I  think of Leila when I write against the culture of fear surrounding refugees. I feel sick at the fear that she felt then; I haven’t seen her in a couple of years. I hope things have not gotten worse for her, but I’ve seen enough friends paralyzed by PTSD  to bet they have.

And honestly, with all of the hate crimes I’ve heard of lately, she probably has reason to be afraid.

***

We’re talking about my friend Harun,* his wife Maryam,* and their beautiful daughter. She is also the light of their lives. They are Christians who fled persecution in Iraq to live for years in Jordan before making it to Austin. Because they are Christians, they don’t always fit in with the Iraqi Muslims, but US Christians are not always kind to them either. They’ve been on the receiving end of their own awful comments; they live a lonely life in between groups.

Harun makes and sells crosses. He told me once it was to thank God for helping his family escape persecution in Iraq; he worked as a carpenter for years and feels a special affinity to Jesus for that reason. He and Maryam have provided as well as they could for their daughter through a variety of jobs; there were other children who died years ago in Iraq, so giving their only-living daughter a good life is of the utmost importance to them.

Their daughter will be famous some day; I’m confident of it. I ran into Maryam and her daughter at the mall on Black Friday, where they were doing some mother-daughter Christmas shopping. Their daughter, who graduated from Ann Richards High School, is studying journalism at a prestigious university nearby. She wants to highlight the issues refugees face every day in her future news articles.

The look of wonder on Maryam’s face when her fierce, bright daughter spoke of her dreams was something I’ll never forget. I have seen this girl grow from a small child to an intelligent young woman. I choked up a bit myself; I want my daughters to grow up to be like her.

If I were in their situation, I would hope I could sacrifice as much as they have to give my daughters hope and a future.

***

My friends are who we talk about when we talk about refugees. There are refugees who are coming from Syria (if they are able to come), but there are others who are already here, from Somalia and Burundi and Burma and Bangladesh and Cuba and Iraq and Afghanistan and other places around the world. These people from a variety of backgrounds are affected by our language and by these policy debates.

They have heard in the last few weeks that they are offensive or controversial to the country they love, the country many of them fought fiercely for in Iraq.

They are US citizens and Texans, but what little sense of safety they’ve attained since being resettled is threatened by the angry political rhetoric.

Leila’s and Nen’s families gave everything up because they helped the US army; Harun and Maryam are Christians who are still often on the receiving end of racism and hatred just because their accents and names are different than some people around them.

But to be clear, Muslim or Christian, no refugee deserves the level of vitriol they are receiving right now in these policy debates.

I worry about the hate crimes that are sure to increase. The posturing at the Republican presidential debate will only exacerbate the problem. Those of us who know refugees feel desperate to tell their stories well; we must speak with more nuance and compassion. I hope we can do better, for the sake of my friends.

***

* (Because I’m talking about my friends without their permission, I changed their names in this post.)

Slumlords and Wonder Women

 This blog post was originally published on June 20, 2013 on a now defunct blog site devoted to refugee issues. I’m going to be sharing some earlier posts to give an idea of the daily battles refugees have endured long before they became the subject of an intense political debate. 

***

{BE WARNED: SOME OF THESE PICTURES ARE PRETTY GROSS.}

I was in my car with my girls when I got the phone call. Our friend H, my first Burmese refugee friend, was fuming. Her brother-in-law and sister-in-law had finally agreed to leave Thailand and join their brothers’ families in the States. When they arrived in the country, the refugee resettlement agency paid an apartment complex a deposit. “24 hours to clean the apartment,” the manager said.

Six days later, they were still staying in H’s home.

Nine people, four adults, five children, sharing the space that is full with H’s small family alone. The in-laws’ new household items were stacked against the wall in the living room, waiting space. A boy’s bike, some pots and pans, bags full of clothes, a lamp. The brother-in-law was sick. The sister-in-law was catnapping on the suitcases.

Jetlagged, exhausted, bewildered, overwhelmed, they wished they had just stayed in the refugee camp.

The apartment that was supposed to be theirs not only had not been cleaned, it was disgusting. I asked her to tell me what it looked like and H just said, “Could you come?”

I asked her to give me 30 minutes.

***

The first thing I did when I got home from work after giving my girls some lunch was to put on a pencil skirt, high heels, a conservative top. I pulled my hair in a bun, grabbed my camera and a notebook.

When we got back in the car, my daughter asked me, “Why did you change clothes?”

I tried to think about how to frame my answer: “Sometimes when I look a little bit different, I can have better conversations with the apartment manager. She’s not being very nice. She’s kind of being a bully to our friends.”

My daughter is all over bullies. They’ve talked about strategies at school. I saw her eyebrows in the rear view mirror: “I’m going to tell her, ‘You cannot be mean to my friends!'”

“That’s good. We have to speak kindly but firmly to people who we think are not being nice to other people sometimes.”

My other daughter piped up. “Yeah, I’m just going to kick her in the knees.”

Also an appropriate response, but I still tried to talk her into slightly more positive choices.

Later, my oldest circled back to my clothes: “So you changed clothes because you’re going to help people? Does that make you kind of like Wonder Woman?”

It was a great line. I liked the fact that my daughter thought I might be like Wonder Woman just because I changed clothes. It made me feel a bit better about taking my young daughters with me to go chat with a slumlord manager.

***

When we got there, the girls played outside while I went with H to the apartment they had supposedly been “cleaning” for six days. Every time they called or went by the apartment, the manager said they were just two hours away. “Come back at ten! Come back at twelve! It will be two!”

The smell hit me first, the hot rotten smell of overflowing garbage in the summer. I clicked indignantly through with my high heels, snapping pictures.

There were roaches and small bugs crawling all over the walls.

There was something rotting in the sink with bugs coming out of it.

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The trash was overflowing in the kitchen.

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The living room and back porch were full of trash.photo4

The walls were marked with food and crayons and other disgusting things.

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(Out of kindness, I have spared you my pictures of the bathroom.)

***

Amazingly, while I was there, the manager suddenly showed up, all business, on the phone with the cleaning lady, “Where are you? What? Hurry! We have clients waiting!”

After my repeated assertions that my friends would be taking their deposit and moving elsewhere shortly, she finally told me there was another apartment waiting almost ready for them.

H had asked several times for another apartment; it took a dressed-up white lady to get that information.

My own complicity in this makes me irate–this is not my first battle with this manager and only at my dressed-up, pissed-off, indignant best do I ever get results and that’s only because of my skin color and education level. This is systemic injustice at its very worst–it’s common knowledge among our friends that she treats Burmese people worse than anyone else. I hate it.

***

We went next to the “new” apartment. Everything looked good but the mildew-covered bathroom. The sink and bathtub and toilet were being replaced, she told us. It would take two hours.

“Two hours?” I was incredulous.

She consulted in Spanish with the handyman who was painting (Sr. E, a man with a fine handlebar mustache). Sr. E said it would be two days. She looked at me confidently and said, “He just said two hours.”

She doesn’t know I speak Spanish, but any idiot in Texas knows the difference between dos dias and dos horas.

H and I went back to talk with her in-laws. I told them I thought they should pull out, but the brother and sister-in-law want to be nearby. It’s worth it to them to be in the same building and same schools as their cousins; I can’t say I blame them. Accompanied by my girls, I went back into battle again.

I smiled my way through a conversation in Spanish with Sr. E (I lived in South America for a few years–I can handle talking about the basics of bathroom renovations). When I told him what the manager had said about “two hours,” he just laughed.

“She lies,” he said. “Everyone knows that.”

No kidding.

Together with Sr. E and my children, their flip-flops slapping the sidewalk while my heels clicked along, I went downstairs to confront the manager, in Spanish so Sr. E could understand.

I might have told her that I would no longer accept the level of injustice against my refugee friends (amigos refugiados and injusticia came up several times). I might have threatened legal action. I might have appealed to her own position as an immigrant and asked her for compassion.

(I might have gone a little over the top–I was kind of wound up.)

***

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Caren called (we had it worked out–she got to be bad cop, I got to be kind-but-firm cop). She said to the manager, “This is the nice phone call. Tomorrow will be the not-nice phone. They will be moved in to a clean apartment within the next two hours or we’re calling our lawyer.”

Last night the family moved into the apartment. The stove still didn’t work and the electricity wasn’t on. I was up there every few hours “speaking firmly” with the manager. It was a hard-scrabble battle that should never have happened, but it worked. Sort of.

***

When I talked to H’s sister-in-law while H translated that first afternoon, I told her how sorry I was that people in my country were treating them so unkindly and how I hoped she understood that some of us were so glad they had come and that there were several refugees that were our good friends.

While we talked, my kids fit right into the little gaggle of girls coloring and giggling on the floor–these are some of their oldest and favorite friends.

Caren and I cannot stand that people treat them differently than they treat us or our blonde children. And judging from the many, many conversations we’ve had the last few days (“Why do grown-ups make bad choices, Mommy? Why won’t they let our friends have the apartment?”), our kids aren’t going to stand for this either.

But all we did was come in and yell a bit: the hero in this story is the tenacious Burmese woman who fights tirelessly every day for her children, her in-laws, her husband, herself, who works and learns and prays and smiles and fights. (And calls her friends when she needs a little extra support yelling–we make a good team.)

My friend H is pure grit. Wonder Woman, indeed.