We are all refugees.
When I close my eyes, I stand trembling on the deck of a ship that has just arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. It is 1881, and my hands shake because the journey across the Atlantic was impossibly rough: seasickness, an overcrowded steerage, rampant head lice and rats, inadequate toilet facilities and tainted water. But we had to come, Wulff and I. In Germany, we would have been forced to give up our small farm and move to the city to work in grim factories, but here in America, Wulff said, we could build good lives again. Here in America, in spite of political parties that claim we new German immigrants are dangerous threats to American values and ideals, we can build a secure house, plant seeds in fertile soil, and send our children to school. America has promised us all of that. It is our refuge now.
When I open my eyes, it is 2017 and I stand in a classroom in Denver, facing thirty seniors—mostly immigrants—who bend their heads over notebooks, writing. They live in an America that has abruptly forgotten its best message: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They live in an America where executive orders demand border walls and travel bans, where self-proclaimed white “nationalists” whisper in the president’s ear, and fear seethes in every turn of rhetoric.
We are all refugees.
As the great-great-granddaughter of Greta and Wulff, I turn to my students and I choose to listen.
I listen to Tesfay, who fled Eritrea to a refugee camp in Ethiopia when he was twelve, fearing for his safety in a country that forcibly conscripts young boys and men into the military.
Tesfay, who arrived in the US alone in 2013, regards his new life with deep brown eyes that have seen too much. In his quiet voice, he speaks of barbed wire, desert crossings, thirst, his cold fear. Friends of his have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing into Europe. Now he sits in an American high school classroom, focusing on the education that propelled him to survive. He sighs when I ask him what he wishes he could tell President Trump. “He needs to understand the story of refugees,” Tesfay says. “He needs to interact with people who are from different countries, which will make him open minded to different people. I wish everyone understood what people go through to get here, and what contributions they are making to this country.” He waits, then glances down at his homework. Back to work.
I listen to Kashindi, who arrived in the US on a rainy day in June of 2010 after living for his first thirteen years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Kashindi’s mother fled the Congo when Uganda and Rwanda invaded and killed thousands of people.
The refugee camp was safer, but Kashindi remembers they were “held like prisoners.” He says: “We weren’t allowed to leave the camp, or go visit family members in different camps. We were surrounded by huge fences, we were like caged birds.” When Kashindi and his mother were selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to come to the US, they both imagined the United States as a kind of heaven, a place where the sky would rain money, where everyone was free and safe and friendly. “We ate, drank, and slept thinking about America,” Kashindi remembers. It hasn’t been the way he imagined, but it’s far better than the camp in Tanzania. Kashindi strides down the hallway to my class in his JROTC uniform, flashes me a grin, thanks me for teaching him today. “Greatness is not where you stand now, but in what direction you’re moving,” he says.
I listen to Nasra Yusuf.
In her black khimar (a head covering silkier and lighter than a hijab) with its green swirling polka dots, her multicolored print sweater, her black and turquoise striped skirt, her glasses with a Malcolm X–darkened top edge, she strikes a revolutionary stance—even the safety pin that secures the khimar beneath her chin seems a bold protest. Nasra Yusuf was born in Somalia, but her family fled to Uganda when she was a few months old—war had broken out, and “it was not safe anywhere,” she says. “We didn’t know where it was safe and where it wasn’t.”
Nasra Yusuf was six when she arrived in America. She imagined it would be a very crowded place where people constantly talked to each other, “just like our villages back home, where everyone is talking, giving each other food.” But for such a populated place, America seemed weirdly empty and quiet: “Here everyone is in their houses. They don’t even go onto the sidewalk. I didn’t expect that.” It was not welcoming, either, in spite of all the resources and opportunities it offered her family. For Nasra Yusuf, America is “a place where everybody’s categorized, and everybody belongs to a certain community, and nobody goes beyond that.” She’s certain that if everyone in America could just slow down long enough to see each other, we could create more understanding. She lifts her chin and shakes her head a little. “Instead of saying, ‘oh, this person’s Muslim, that person’s gay,’ they would see people as people they could connect to.”
I listen to Mohammed.
In 2013, at age seventeen, he emigrated to America from Iraq with his parents and his three younger brothers. They came, Mohammed explains, because: “The terrorists threatened us. My father was working security with a U.S. company in Basra, but we began to feel insecure and scared. We hoped to find a good education and a good future.” Mohammed feels America is exactly what he thought it would be, though it’s been difficult to master speaking and writing English. He thinks in Arabic and then works to translate his thoughts so English speakers can understand. By nature, he is soft-spoken, polite, tall and slender, with a shy smile. When I ask Mohammed what he wishes President Trump knew about immigrants, he hesitates, thinking. Finally, he says, “He should know that people are coming for an education and a better life, and to have a good future. Some people want to be terrorists, and they don’t want to be good, but most want to be good and have a better life. To get into America, we had to move from Iraq to Syria, then we stayed in Syria seven years. Two of those years, we had war in Syria. Then we had to do interviews and lots of papers. If people knew how much we had to do to prove we want a better life, they would help us and support us.” Mohammed does not want to comment on the recent travel ban. “We are here for a better life,” he repeats.
I listen to Ehywapaw, who was nine when she came to America from a Thai refugee camp, where she and her family, all members of the persecuted Karen ethnic group, had taken refuge.
Ehywapaw says, “My parents brought us here to get an education and a better life and resources. Back [in Thailand], we didn’t have a good education, and we had to work really low-paid jobs. Here there was better opportunity for us.” Ehywapaw hesitates. She is quiet in class, but she is an impeccable student and a highly respected Cadet Captain in the JROTC. “If I’d stayed [in the Thai camp],” she explains, “I think I would be married already. I would be working, and I would not finish school.” Here in America, Ehywapaw will do far more than just finish high school. She plans to study social work in college, to help newcomer immigrants like herself and her family. “I wish Donald Trump knew that I’m not a terrorist,” she says. “We just want a better opportunity. I’m not a bad person.” She smiles, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes.
And I listen to Yoselyn, who came to America from Honduras in 2006, at the age of eight, all by herself.
Her mother had already made her way illegally into California and now wanted her daughter to join her. Yoselyn remembers her mother said she was going to pay someone to bring her north. If that didn’t work, her mother told her, she would have her come on a plane. Instead, Yoselyn says, “I ended up going all by myself. We went to Guatemala, and this guy came and picked me up. We were on a bus and the guy told me to go to sleep. He said he would tell an officer that I was his daughter and these were my papers. I didn’t feel scared. I just felt sad that I had to leave my nana, who was raising me.”
Yoselyn says she wishes people who are against DACA and who are so critical of undocumented immigrants would think about the fact that people come to the US for many reasons, but that “people who come here when they’re young, we don’t have an option.” But it was good she had come, Yoselyn says. If her mom hadn’t paid for her journey north, Yoselyn would have struggled to stay safe and get an education in Honduras. She ducks her head when I ask her if she’s glad she’s in the United States now. “I don’t want to be mean,” she says, examining a strand of red hair between her fingers, “but I want to be in Honduras. I miss going to the beaches.” She smiles wistfully and gazes out the window, where snowflakes fall steadily from a gray Colorado sky.
I listen to my students’ stories. And I ask you, before you make any judgment, to listen, too.
Before you support any law, listen. Before you blindly acquiesce to any ban, to any wall, to any order: listen. These students—Yoselyn, Ehywapaw, Mohammed, Nasra Yusuf, Kashindi and Tesfay—are six of the thousands who have come seeking refuge in the US in the past years. They have sought refuge from controlling governments, unsafe environments, religious persecution, wars, lack of opportunity. And they arrived in a country that promised the opposite of all of that. A democratic government. Secure, sunny neighborhoods. Religious freedom and freedom of expression. Safety. Free and equitable education.
They came seeking the refuge my great-great-grandparents, Wulff and Greta, came seeking. It has long been America’s promise
And yet. Every day of Trump’s presidency, we risk becoming more like the countries these students—and immigrants like Wulff and Greta—have fled
Listen. Listen, and then keep calling your senators, and keep reading, and keep thinking critically about what is true and what is not. Make it your goal to keep this country the nation refugees have dreamed for centuries—and not a country we have to flee.
All names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.