Stepping Up

The results of the US presidential election were a shock to many of us, and while we don’t know exactly what it means for the status and safety of refugees here, and those waiting to come here, we must admit that the outlook is not great.

When I went to the home of my Syrian friends on the morning of November 9 to pick up their nine year-old son for school, his father was in the driveway, talking to a sympathetic neighbor. What could we tell these folks who came here to flee the violence of war, when every credible national and international news outlet says that the election of a serial bigot, compulsive liar, confessed misogynist, and vocal hater of Muslims will lead to increased difficulties for every person in the US who is not a wealthy white Christian male?

I told the boy’s father that everything would be okay. The words caught in my throat. They tasted of bile. But I didn’t know what else to say. If I were them, I’d have been freaking out, and sometimes a horrible lie is lifesaving medicine.

Later in the day, I drove the family to meet with friends from Syria who live two towns over. One family arrived a few weeks before my friends, the other family — a young a couple with three young children — arrived only three days before the election.

I was the only English speaker in the room, and I only know a handful or Arabic words. We all drank thick, unsweetened Arabic coffee as the laughter of our children permeated the curtained windows. Inside, there was no laughter. Voices shifted chaotically from frightened to angry to desperate. I didn’t understand a single word, except for the name of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned, and when that name was spoken, it was spoken with a contempt that needed no interpretation.

Many of my caucasian friends (I am Asian-American) tell me that things will be fine, that I can move on from my rage and frustration, and that I should focus now on building bridges.

But I remember the harassment and fear of growing up as The Other during the 70s and 80s in an overwhelmingly white, lower-middle class New Jersey suburb. Last month’s election brought back some of those buried memories. I noticed that I was rubbing my knees, which have scars on top of scars from being shoved from behind (racists don’t dare attack from the front unless they’re in a mob) to the ground, as my schoolmates screamed “Chink!” What must it be like for someone to experience that kind of treatment from the man who in less than two months will be the president of the country in which they live?

Here is what I know: The millions of good people in this country have not stopped being good. People of conscience have been stepping up since then, and stepping up big. From a man in the deep-red state of Texas reassuring Muslims that they belong, to a customer letting a Muslim waiter know that she is glad he’s here. At Standing Rock, US veterans stood between hostile law enforcement and protesters, and when safety was assured, they begged the forgiveness for the war crimes of the US against the tribal nations. The shit is hitting the fan, but good people are picking up sponges, mops, and buckets.

It will be a struggle, and it will be difficult even as those of us who live relatively safe lives will struggle with things like increasing insurance premiums and decreases in educational standards, but we will persevere. Not only that — we will help others to persevere.

I make no illusions that I can build bridges between myself and those who seek to demolish them. But I am inspired to commit to building bridges between others who will work for the safety and prosperity of refugees, and the safety and prosperity of others who are in harm’s way because of the election of a demagogue.

I start with the simple gesture of putting a safety pin on my shirt, as those in the UK have done to show solidarity in the face of Brexit. But the pin in the US is more than a symbol of solidarity. I declare myself a shield for those who may face harm in the coming four years and beyond. I will do no harm, but I will not allow harm to come to those who are targeted simply because of the circumstances of their birth.