Archive for the ‘America’ Category

More Alike Than Expected

July 23, 2009

More often than expected, African history evokes American history, highlighting both the similarities and the differences. Civil war is one example. Though America’s war between north and south is more distant, and therefore harder to picture, than all of Africa’s more recent and accessible domestic wars, it was no less graphic and divisive. America’s war was waged largely for the policy that comes with power, while Africa’s wars tend to be exclusively about the spoils of power. America’s war famously pitted brothers against each other, which literally never happens in Africa because divisions are so often based on clan, or extended family. One striking difference is the civility which ended the American civil war, compared to the relatively bloody climax to so many of Africa’s wars. Liberia suffered several successive wars throughout the 1980s and 1990s, all of which ended in disgusting public torture and execution of the vanquished. Prince Johnson ate Samuel Doe alive, on video. It’s literally impossible to imagine Grant chewing on Lee’s warm, bloody, rubbery ear.

It was far from a foregone conclusion that the north would win America’s civil war. Had the south won, it’s likely the United States would have become very much like apartheid South Africa, although a better comparison is to say that South Africa is the United States if the Native Americans had won. The similarities between the United States’ relationship to its native population and apartheid South Africa’s to its are obvious, down to the specific use of reservations and native homelands. The primary difference is that the formation of the United States occurred at a less enlightened time in history, when too few people had yet to object to the idea of imperial conquest, which, if we’re being honest, is exactly what the United States did as it rapidly expanded westward across North America. Indeed, the United States is to North America exactly what Europe was to Africa. Apartheid was simply the last toehold of that American style of conquest and subjugation in Africa. That the United States was one of the many countries which eventually claimed the moral high ground and helped to nudge the whites from power in South Africa must be called ironic, which is not to say it was wrong of the United States.

Having recently read both Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War, it is impossible to miss the similarities between the Mormon adventure in North America and the Boer’s in South Africa. Both are minority white groups possessing a messianic sense of their own destiny and moral purity. They are both adamantly racist, though both have worked in recent years to cloak their bigotry. Both were, and largely continue to be, ostracized by more powerful white groups. The Mormons were driven westward from their birthplace in New York state first to Illinois and Missouri and then all the way to what was then the Utah Territory. The Dutch Boers, as the English settlers became the dominant white community in South Africa, embarked on their own voortrek across the backcountry to a new interior homeland they called the Transvaal. Both journeys are now mythologized, though both ultimately failed to find the isolation which was sought. Less than a decade after the Mormons reached Utah, the territory was annexed by the United States; though it took more than seventy years, the Boers’ enclave in South Africa eventually was subsumed under the British colony at Cape Town.

It is interesting to wonder how long a people must occupy a land before it becomes morally theirs. The French were not the first in what is today France and the Germans were not the first in what is now Germany, yet no one disputes that France is for the French and Germany for the Germans. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim rightful historic ownership of their disputed state, but before either of them there were others, many others. The Bible explicitly recounts the graphic battles and enormous death toll as Joshua led the invasion of Canaan after the Israelites fled from Egypt. The lesson, it would seem, is that if you subjugate, or better yet eliminate, the native population thoroughly enough, then one day the land will be morally yours.

The American Dream

March 16, 2008


I come from two big families so there are far too many of us to celebrate every birthday individually; instead, we lump them all together by month.   The September family birthday party is always the largest.  Last year, between toys for my younger cousins, cards for my aunts and uncles, and cake and ice cream for everyone, my extended family asked about my work with refugees.

It was immediately clear that while I have one perspective about refugees specifically and immigrants more generally, most of my extended family has a very different perspective.  Where I see cultural and economic benefit, they see potential terrorism.  I became defensive and then aggressive – I answered their questions in haste and missed an opportunity to tell my family about the work that I do and why I believe it should be done.

Generally, a refugee is exactly what the popular conception suggests: someone fleeing from warfare.  Legally, for the purposes of immigration to the United States, the definition of a refugee is more precise.  To paraphrase and simplify, a refugee is someone who flees his or her country of nationality because of persecution, or fear of persecution, for at least one of five reasons: race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  There are more than ten million refugees worldwide, though it is not a static population.

It is my job to help a refugee explain his or her story, and in particular his or her fear of persecution, which I then record so that an immigration officer can determine the legitimacy of the applicant’s request for refugee status in the United States.  The stories, as expected, are often obscene.  It is unbelievable what people will tolerate before they are willing to make the traumatic and fearful choice to flee home for something unknown.  Most don’t go far, largely because they don’t want to go far.  They cross the nearest international border for immediate safety, then hover there hoping that soon enough they will be able to return.  Years and even decades later, many find they are still hovering in that limbo.

It is this type of refugee that typically is resettled to the United States.  They are people who have been warehoused in refugee camps, people for whom there is no durable solution to their displacement, people who cannot repatriate and who are not allowed any substantive local integration in their country of first asylum.  They are registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, vetted by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration, and finally approved for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship & Immigration Service.  Their names are checked and their fingerprints are scanned.  Of more than ten million refugees worldwide, it is about 50,000 who are resettled to the United States, in a good year.

Once in the United States, most adult refugees are working within ninety days.  Most children are in school.  They pay their bills and their taxes, shop for groceries and clothing, and go to church or the mosque.  They buy a television, which they gather around at night to watch whatever is on.  They save to buy a car.  They are, just like the rest of us, normal.  After five years, they are eligible to become naturalized citizens.  At that point, the fact that they were not born in the United States does not make them any less American than anyone else.

The beauty of being American is that we’re not as easily defined as other nationalities.  We’re not this color and we’re not that religion.  We’re everyone and we’re no one.  Many foreign observers say that the one thing most Americans tend to be is optimistic.  We tend to believe that with a little effort and creative savvy, with enough entrepreneurial pluck, we can succeed.  Much of the world marvels at our optimism; they call us naïve.  It is our bravado, not our wealth, which makes much of the world dislike us.  By the standards of Europe, we’re young.  We swagger.

Refugees and other immigrants naturally embody this American spirit.  They come to the United States with nothing but their determination to work hard and rebuild.  They believe that if they do, they will grow and prosper.  With typical American optimism, they believe that each generation will be better off than the last – their children will be better off than them and their grandchildren better off than their children.  This vitality is exactly why the United States needs its immigrants.  America is not white and it is not Christian; America is optimistic.  Immigrants, with all of their many and varied American Dreams, should not be feared.  They should be embraced. 

This is what I should have told my family.