In the first hours after our new president signed an executive order to close this country’s doors to refugees — temporarily for now, for some groups — I cannot stop thinking of Degnath Adhikari and his brother Jaganath.
I think of Abubaker Abdelrahma and of Asnake Deferse. I think of Amira Abakr and her husband Adam Abdalla.
I keep thinking of how long Deg, a Bhutanese man who spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, had been separated from his family and the joy he felt when they finally were approved for entry into the U.S. He had been in the U.S. without his immediate family for two years by then. He’d married Bedika Kafley to whom he had confessed his loneliness.
I remember drinking chai at their kitchen table in an Aurora apartment building of refugees and immigrants. Deg was asking himself whether he should hug his mother upon greeting her at the airport or, as was custom, kneel at her feet and touch his forehead to the ground. Tradition, he thought, might be best.
I went with him to the airport. That is the privilege of my job, to witness such moments. His mother was tiny. Doll-like. And Deg, lovely, lovely Deg, could not contain his heart and he enveloped his mother in his arms. Weeping, she cupped his face in her hands and kissed his cheeks, this dutiful son who paved the way for them.
I keep thinking of the refugees I met in the English class in Richmond, Virginia. This is where I met Abubaker. He was a Sudanese refugee who had become a resettlement program supervisor for Catholic Charities. He spent much of his time guiding his fellow refugees on survival in this country, on bus routes and firm handshakes.
This, too, is where I met Amira, also from Sudan, who was in the intermediate level. She loved learning English. She wanted to be a dentist, and awoke early to catch the bus to the class. Her husband Adam, once an interpreter, a college graduate, worked the night shift at the Tyson plant. He deboned chicken for $10 an hour. He told me that if someone asked him what the hardest job in America was, he surely might answer that he held it.
I told him something that Deg told me. Deg worked in a meatpacking plant in Greeley for $12 an hour after he arrived. He sliced beef in a freezing room. He wore metal mesh gloves to protect his fingers from cuts and his hands cramped so badly he would have to stop and pull the fingers of each hand to straighten them. Turnover was high in the plant because it is the kind of grueling, low-pay work that is now relegated to those who have little other choice, the work that, yes, many Americans will not do no matter how much you paid them.
I asked Deg how it was a Hindu could work in a meatpacking plant. He said something he learned in a work training class for refugees. USA. U Start Again.
“You start again,” Adam repeated, a pause between each word.
A retired insurance agent named Art Heifetz taught the class in Richmond. He told me what Americans who teach English to refugees and immigrants always tell me. That he should pay them for letting him come to know them, that their gratitude reminded them of their own good fortune and of what this country still represented to so much of the world.
“I slept wrong and I hurt my neck,” he said to his students one of the days I was there. “What did I do?”
“You hurt your neck,” they answered in response. And there was something about seeing men and women who fled murder and mayhem and the capricious brutality of terrorism, people who had lived for years in camps, responding with the earnestness and eagerness of children. In it unexpectedly moving, a glimpse into the unknowable depths of human grace.
“How did I hurt my neck?” he asks.
“You got wronged sleep,” comes the reply from an Iraqi.
This class reminds me of another, the one in which I met Deg in 2009. It was a Spring Institute workshop dedicated to introducing refugees to American work culture. All of them were on a clock in the same way refugees are now. Single men like Deg receive a stipend of $335 a month through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. It lasts for a maximum of eight months after which they are expected to be working. Families with children can qualify for some public assistance, what remains, anyway of what we used to call a safety net.
It was something to see, this class, this range of refugees from Africa and Asia, largely. Their transitions would be difficult for different reasons. Some could not speak English, a huge disadvantage in the job search. Others were college-educated, and they swung from gratitude to be alive and in the U.S. to frustration because their degrees did not transfer. Which is how an engineer learns to drive an airport shuttle as Asnake from Ethiopia did.
It’s all these faces, beaming, shy, determined, homesick, thankful, that leaped to mind when I talked to my cousin the Trump supporter a couple weeks ago. He told me that he thought something had happened to the American spirit, that somehow it had become less bold, less aspirational. He said we traded the stars of space for the stars of Hollywood, and the profound for the mundane.
My response was immediate: “You need to know more refugees and immigrants.” I have written about these newcomers to our country for many years now, I told him. What I have come to know, to cherish, is their perseverance, their resilience and the great faith they hold in this country. There lies your aspiration, I told my cousin.
Refugees and immigrants are, I said, the replenishers of the American spirit. They are the well from which we all drink.
This is what I keep thinking on this day after the president signed his order, at the end of a week when he targeted refugees, Muslims, immigrants, here legally and illegally. That the horror and the shame of it is not only that it sacrifices an ideal – and, yes, it is an ideal – of American moral principles in the name of a solution for which there is no problem. Not only that it debases the humanity of others in a way that only can be accomplished by first debasing our own. But also that in the name of protecting this country, we cut ourselves off from a source of its vitality.
In the name of strength, we make ourselves weak.
In the pursuit of “greatness,” we are diminished.
Photo of Sudanese refugees and video of Amira Abakr by Tina Griego.