On vacation last summer, my wife and I made a road-stop in a small town in South Carolina. We found a great little coffee shop overlooking a picturesque harbor, and settled in to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet conversation. We obviously weren’t quiet enough because a couple of guys a few tables over quickly asked us, “Where are you from?” Our British accents had given us away, but the question was friendly enough (as it nearly always is in our case) and we responded. But the next question seemed to jump to somewhere quite surprising: “What do you think about all the immigrants and Muslim terrorists taking over your country? You must be really worried.” This question made me want to recoil and shut them out. I had a response, but ironically this apparently prejudiced and ignorant question was firing up all my own prejudice and ignorance. I am ashamed to say it, but their own accents and demeanor, and the fact that I was in “The South,” all made me jump to a host of conclusions about their worldview and openness to dialogue.
I wanted to withdraw, but something else overturned this instinct and I began to talk. I explained that most people in Britain do not see it that way, that immigrants are generally welcomed and cause no problem at all; that Muslims are not terrorists and are not taking over the country, but just people like you and me trying to make a life. I also mentioned that I was quite familiar with “terrorism” growing up in England because of the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army. Depending on your political perspective, the IRA were “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” seeking Irish independence from centuries of British oppression—but either way, no one assumed any person from Ireland was automatically a terrorist. We talked about stereotyping, sweeping judgements, fear and misinformation—and their use by people in authority to gain support and consolidate power. They responded insightfully with their own perspective, we all listened, and it ended up being a kind and fascinating conversation: one that changed us all, I believe.
Another unspoken irony is that I am an immigrant. I am not a citizen of the USA but in all my nearly 20 years of living here, I have never felt treated like an immigrant. No one seems suspicious of me. The frequent question, “Where are you from?” is always asked with genuine interest. People seem to find the English accent quaint, and no one has suggested it’s problematic for me to be here. This is quite remarkable since I come from a country against which the US fought a bloody war of independence not all that long ago. We even came back a few decades later and burned down the White House—but all seems forgiven now, and I am received with kindness.
When my kids were at school, they would counter negative talk about immigrants and refugees with, “I am an immigrant too”—to which the response was always, “Oh, but you’re different.” There’s a sinister side to that “difference.” It’s not hard to see that the reason my immigrant family is treated so well is because we are white. That’s a hard sentence to write, but I think it’s true. The children being separated from their parents at our borders are not white. The refugees on blacklisted countries are not white. Few white immigrants like me receive xenophobic comments or are suspected of being terrorists. Somehow people who look different make us afraid, and fear is the fertile soil for prejudice and injustice.
Today is World Refugee Day: a day coordinated by the UN to highlight the plight of more than 66 million displaced people around the world. It’s a day that forces us as humanity to look at the tragedy of our fear and hatred as it wreaks havoc through war, and economic and environmental disaster. It also forces us all to confront our own fear of “the other.” Most of these people might look different to “us,” and perhaps we can acknowledge that this makes us fearful, suspicious or indifferent to people who are in need of a safe home. Perhaps this is why, despite having one of the world’s most rigorous vetting systems for refugees, the US still struggles with fear.
There are so many ways we can work towards a more loving response to refugees (click here for ideas for action). And we can all work together to overcome the power of fear in our culture. Perhaps a more positive reason my kids’ friends don’t think of them as “immigrants” is because they know them. They have a human connection that transcends culture, nationality, race and politics. Fear dissipates when we get to know others and build a bridge. That conversation in the coffeehouse in South Carolina could have resulted in greater polarization, but somehow we all managed to rise above our prejudices and listen. So let’s all speak up and act out for refugees. Let’s befriend refugees, immigrants, and people from other cultures wherever we can. Let’s have courageous and loving dialogue with those who disagree with us. Let’s fight fear and build bridges, and dare to dream the world can be a better place.