CDS Column: Lift the Lamp

In January I began volunteering for a nonprofit that works with high school students to help improve their writing. As I writer I love talking about writing, and this was a way to give back.

I got paired with a 18-year-old Muslim of Somali descent named Abass.

Abass was born in Ethiopia where his parents were refugees, then moved to South Africa before his family made it to the United States. They lived first in Lowell, Mass., and then they moved to Maine. Because of his time in South Africa Abass spoke English well, so he was in good position when started school. He will graduate this year, and he hopes to study dentistry at college in the fall.

Abass smiles a lot. His face moves quickly from into a grin, and then just as quickly back to normal. He is warm, engaging, makes jokes when he’s nervous and is exceedingly friendly. He teases the girls in his class, the boys in his class, everyone, and they tease him back. He’s playful, a bit of a class clown. He is well-liked.

Abass speaks three languages. His parents, however, don’t speak English, so when it comes to filling out any sort of documentation or legal paperwork (taxes, signing a lease, college applications) he winds up serving as translator, explaining things to them instead of the adults explaining things to him. That has forced Abass to grow up fast, but he hasn’t lost his joyfulness. Even 7,000 miles from the country of his people, he carries hope.

Abass is a Muslim and a Somali. If he were applying for a visa today, he would have to contend with the executive order signed on Friday.

It’s been a long two weeks.

In fact, it hasn’t even been two weeks. Inauguration Day was less than that ago, and the executive orders didn’t really begin unfolding until the following Monday. That means it’s been only nine days. But a lot can happen in nine American days.

It doesn’t seem so in the Mount Washington Valley sometimes. There’s no airport with incoming international flights, no mosques, few Hispanics or other people of color. Here, in the northern reaches of one of the whitest states in the country, feels detached from the conversations igniting our country right now. Building a wall with Mexico might push up food prices, but it won’t change the complexion of our streets. Restricting refugee visas won’t break up local families. These are almost academic arguments here, not something poised to come home to roost in our community right away.

But then I sit down with Abass, and I realize how much these conversations matter.

It is striking how divergent American views can be. We read the same sacred national texts, revere the same icons, and yet come away with strikingly opposing views. America is our religion, and we can become unitarians universalists to the Westboro Baptists. The Westboro Baptists are gathering loud of late.

Our creed, captured so eloquently beneath the feet of the Statue of Liberty, is simple: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

America’s promise is a promise we ourselves were granted. It may have been generations ago, but at one time it was our grandparents, or great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents, who wanted to be dentists. It was they who spoke three languages and translated their new homes to their immigrant parents. We are the offspring of refugees and asylum-seekers. We spilled onto these shores, scores of English, German, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Lebanese, South African, Chinese, Sudanese, people from every country and continent, and slowly we made ourselves American. We made America. We grew in size and in strength, emboldened because of our diversity and our courage and our hope. It was not without challenges and disgrace—the slaughtering of Native Americans, the slavery of Africans and their descendents—but still ever striving upwards towards the promise of Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”

I see that now, in a young man who has dreams of being a dentist. A young Muslim, from a country on a list, who wants the freedom to strive and flourish.

We live a long way from this fight. It is a more than an hour drive to the room where once a week I sit with Abass and we work to improve his writing. But if he is willing to show up, I will too.

These are our fights. This is our country. There are so many days where I wish I could forget it, where I would prefer to grab my climbing gear, strap into my skis, and forget about the chaos unfolding right now, the sweeping American changes emanating from Washington. But I choose not to. I choose to sit with Abass, to talk to him about verb tense and character development and setting, to ask him about his family and his story and what he would like to write about.

And in those conversations I am met by a smart young man, a man with dreams, a man with hope and passion and drive. We would be lucky to call him an American. We would be lucky to have him as part of our country.

I will not close the door, and I will not sit quietly by as others do. Donald Trump is right, this is the time for patriotism. In my country, “all men are created equal.” I will not remain silent.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Welcome.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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