PEOPLE DON’T CHOOSE TO BECOME REFUGEES

My thoughts are jumbled in chaos in a way that feels disorienting and foreign. I write about what I see most of the time, relishing the pairing of the visual with thought and a hoped for clarity. The current state of my country is a jumbled chaos and it renders me inarticulate. I am bombarded with information that makes my head confused, my heart cry in pain, my breath stop short. If you pass me as I wander through the days lost in thought you will hear me audibly moaning and gasping. My body is making noises as it tries to avoid being crushed with despair.

I marched in a Women’s March in America on January 21st, the day after the 45th President of the United States was sworn in. I made a sign that read ‘Women Make America Strong.’ The first time I marched with thousands and thousands of people was in 1982 in Glasgow, Scotland when I was an undergraduate student and we marched out of classes at Glasgow University and through the streets of the city chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie- Out! Out! Out!’ I was a participant and an outsider simultaneously, in it, yet watching it. Maggie Thatcher stirred passions in students when she cut funding for education. It was joyful and exuberant.

I marched in Buffalo, New York a few years later in a Holocaust Memorial March when I was in graduate school, a silent protest of a march urging the world to not forget the lives lost to unspeakable genocide. Someone would lie on the ground as we marched, and their body would be traced in chalk, leaving a trail of outlined bodies in our wake, fragments of emptiness. It was a somber and sobering experience.

I marched again in Buffalo, New York, meeting in Delaware Park, to protest the Chinese crackdown on dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the time I was the Amnesty International advisor at Williamsville East High School where once a month or so we would meet after school to write letters for those unjustly imprisoned. I remember candlelight vigils. I remember reading names from lists. We would learn about an unjust case and we would flood an embassy somewhere in the world with letters. My Korean and Chinese students would help us write in unknown native languages, and we would copy foreign characters from the chalkboard, hoping our words made sense and would make a difference. I was young and inflated with naïve hope. I went to the Tiananmen Square March alone, a lone white man in a small group of Asian Americans, offering support, a participant and an outsider simultaneously. World problems were elsewhere and America was great.

I didn’t march or engage in protest for the next two decades. The nineties passed and the world didn’t end with Y2K and the twin towers fell and we went to war around the globe, here and then there, and I was untouched. The 2000’s passed and none of the nonsense made me take to the streets. Lauren and I yelled at the television a great deal, but we did not leave our home to engage or march. That would have taken too much effort, and our frustrations were not organized. I helped students make theatre as protest for #OccupyWallStreet, but I did not join my students who went to downtown Cincinnati to protest. When three students were arrested in an evening sit in protest their bravery and engagement shamed me.

I marched alone two weeks ago on January 21, 2017 in the Women’s March in Cincinnati, joining 10,000 happy, boisterous, creative people who were relishing the feeling of community and action after months of shocked disbelief. The power was palpable, as our feet on the ground moved in lock step with millions across the nation and around the world. My moving feet were part of something, and the action of the event was stirring. It felt so unexpectedly good, so refreshing. It seems I love being a small part of something large, being alone and anonymous at moments where the identity of the event trumps my personal identity. I relish the engagement and community, traits currently missing from daily life in America.

And then the 45th President of the United States signed a complete travel ban for all residents and refugees of 7 countries, halting travel, halting immigration, halting humanity. And it was personal. With a seemingly innocent and small theatre exchange called the Dadaab Theatre Project, an idea floated by a former student and friend to spend a week with American students working with refugees who lived in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2011, my life became personally intertwined with refugees. I never imagined that a few short days in personal communion with these beautiful souls would create a stranglehold on my heart that won’t let go. The abstract word refugee became tangible. People don’t choose to become refugees. War creates refugees, and money creates wars, and my strong America is very good at making wars.

Students from Cincinnati and refugees from the Dadaab Refugee Camp made an original theatre piece for World Refugee Day called ‘The Collapsible Space Between Us’, and with unintended accuracy the space collapsed so completely that I encountered a personal responsibility I didn’t know I could possess. Wise and funny, shy and confident, and wickedly intelligent young men shifted from being a vague concept of ‘refugee from Dadaab’ to very real people. They were Peter Ajang from South Sudan, Moulid and AbdiRashid from Somalia , and Ojullu from the Gambela region of Ethiopia. They became my personal responsibility. I could not help change their refugee status, I couldn’t, and that made my heart ache with pain, but I could engage with them. Without means to change their status, I relied on the only means I had; I could care for them.

Now, six years later, I still care. I have tried to not let time make me lazy as the years have passed. I still say ‘Hello’ every once in a while, and offer a word of support here and there. I listen, and act when able. I see them and I hear them.

My America no longer sees or hears. With this presidential order my America has become an enemy to decency. A fear mongering buffoon bereft of true human compassion has directly touched people close to my heart. It is not abstract. I can’t just post an #IStandWithRefugees message and feel good about myself.

I am in America because my ancestors immigrated. I am the product of public schools. I believe in world engagement, knowing that learning of others beyond our borders will teach us to put others first. I know that in giving we receive. I know that history has taught us that when walls are stupidly erected with the delusion that they will protect, opposing forces are concurrently unleashed that will eventually tear down those walls. The winds of chaos may be blowing in America, but I know that we will find a calm after this storm.

In the meanwhile, I will speak and write and I will resist. I can’t keep quiet. I will persist.

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This entry was published on February 10, 2017 at 11:45 pm. It’s filed under People, Places, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “PEOPLE DON’T CHOOSE TO BECOME REFUGEES

  1. Brenda Benzin on said:

    Richard,

    I am sooooo proud of you. I have not done the protests you have, but I am of your heart. It is evident to me that you stand for everything I believe in. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Brenda Benzin

    >

  2. Thank you Brenda. It’s time to stand tall for what is right. Thank you for reading and for your support.

  3. Cheryl Jordan on said:

    I am so inspired by you. Your writing is heartfelt, articulate, and honest. Thank you for being a light in the world.

  4. Beverly Croskery on said:

    Richard, this is so powerful and so very true. Like you, this has been a very difficult time for me. We have a President who acts like a spoiled child and surrounds himself with people who feed on and agree with him. We watch and read and wonder what will happen next. The judges have delayed him but he will find a way to get his way, I am afraid.

    Having lived through WW!!, his behavior is very scary too me. It has been seen before. I pray for our beautiful America. Thanks for sharing.
    Your friend,
    Bev

  5. Thank you Beverly. Thanks for reading my words. It is time to pray for America the beautiful.

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