The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three lifelong friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. Given the recent events in our country, we felt it would be a fitting moment to reflect on immigration, refugees, and what it means to be an outsider.
America’s not-so-arguably best loved contemporary poet, Billy Collins, has a poem titled “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now.” (You can find it in his books Sailing Alone Around the Room or Picnic, Lightning.) In it he describes a wet dog wandering around a crowded pub, looking for a friendly pat on the head, and he describes how each person she approaches pushes her away. Then he addresses that distant, unknowable stranger of the future to whom the poem is written, saying,
Whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everybody in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.
It is in our human nature to despise the pitiable. We do it now, we always have, and hundreds of years from now, strangers in distant countries will be doing it still.
But we don’t have to. And isn’t that what Jesus came to teach us? To show us our worst impulses and direct us toward our better angels instead? To teach us to be better than we might be? To inspire us to show grace and love to even the most despised among us. To show grace and love to the drug-addicted, the homeless, to prisoners, to “thugs” and “losers,” to the jobless, to the illiterate, to welfare moms, to kids who come to school in dirty clothes, to illegal immigrants, to people who don’t speak English. And to strange, dark-skinned foreigners in headscarves and beards, who practice a strange faith from a far desert that, to us, is shrouded in mystery and darkness. Foreigners who may even be dirty and destitute, carrying stories of graphic, bloody tragedies we don’t want to hear.
Nobody loves a wet dog. Even schoolchildren – over the course of the 2016 election – have begun spewing racist hatred at their own classmates. Children as young as kindergarten have been reported taunting their Latino classmates that they should “go back to Mexico.” Some of those Latino children may be illegal immigrants, some of them aren’t immigrants at all – but just looking like someone who might be an illegal immigrant is enough reason to be despised.
I bet everybody… even the children… pushes her away.
In just a few years, the kindergartener receiving that taunt could be my own beautiful, brilliant, bilingual, biracial, Latina, American niece.
I really hope we learn how to love a “wet dog” by then.
In 2007, I spent 8 weeks in Siena, Italy. The trip was amazing. I learned how little Italian I knew. I learned that it’s great to learn how to ask for directions in a foreign language, but it’s more helpful to be able to understand the answer. I learned to appreciate really good food. I learned about art. I learned an awful lot about myself. I also learned how much I like America. But, the single experience that has stuck with me the most over the past 10 years wasn’t the gondola ride in Venice, it wasn’t visiting the leaning tower of Pisa, it wasn’t seeing the Palio, hiking the Cinque Terre, or the amazing cuisine – it was my flight home. I happened to be seated next to an Iranian-American woman who told me about her life, her faith, her family and gave me the gift of seeing the world through her eyes.
She practiced Baha’i and fled Iran during the cultural revolution. She went to Italy with her husband and expected that she would be able to return after a few months, but never was. She attended college in Italy and eventually moved to the United States to become an American. She called herself a “baby American” because she was the first American in her family. Her children had grown up bilingual and were able to speak Arabic, English and Italian. Her son was a doctor, and her daughter was a CPA.
I was amazed by her story. She had left her country with nothing, but went on to have an incredible life. I was also moved by her faith. She told me that she believed men and women should be treated equally because the human race is like a bird with two wings: one male and one female. If one is kept weaker, the bird cannot fly. She told me that our years on this Earth are like the 9 months we spend in the womb before birth – a time for conception and growth. A baby in the womb doesn’t understand what her hands or ears are for, but if she is born without them, then she will be handicapped in this life. A baby cannot control how their body develops, but in this life, we are responsible for developing honesty, friendship, generosity and kindness, so that we have them in the next. Those who fail to develop these qualities will suffer in the life that comes next, not because they are tormented by fire or demons, but because they didn’t prepare themselves.
I don’t know that I agree with her philosophy, but I admired the gratitude she had in her life and her ability to appreciate the blessings she’d received in hardship.
She also told me that the one thing she still missed about Iran was the fruit. Fruit that grows in the desert, she told me, is sweeter and more flavorful than any other because it must overcome hardship.
I think that this experience has stuck with me was because this woman was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Like the Iranian fruit, she had become sweeter and more flavorful through her struggles, and I will always be grateful that I was able to meet her.
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt… –Leviticus 19:34
Looking up this verse was an education in and of itself, because the various translations read like the semantic confusion of our modern 24-hour news cycle. Foreigner, stranger, immigrant…alien? In the wake of President Trump’s January 27 Executive Order on immigration and refugees, I’ve realized there’s a surprising amount of confusion about terms like refugee and immigrant, visas, and green-cards. We have gotten so used to tweeted rhetoric about “illegal immigrants” that some seem to have forgotten the vast international process through which non-citizens legally enter and exit our country.
To be truthful, I cannot think of any government action in my lifetime that has so instantly made me less proud to be an American citizen. It made me want to cry out to the rest of the world: this man does not speak for me!
In a rush to minimize the impact, people began saying: calm down, give the president a chance to work, the order didn’t actually hurt anyone. I’ve been fixated, though, not simply on the direct impact for the 7 listed countries, but rather wondering how many people dramatically felt their world had closed, become colder and less welcome in the wake of the order.
I keep thinking about my high school German teacher. She was a Muslim immigrant refugee. Pregnant with her eldest son when she fled war-torn Bosnia, she was given sanctuary in Germany. Fluent in Bosnian, Russian, English, and German, she obtained legal resident status in the US when she wasn’t able to renew her German visa, due to their strict immigration laws. Leaving a lucrative career as a professional translator, she became a public high school German teacher for awkward middle-class suburban teenagers.
Hearing kids complain about homework or difficult assignments, sometimes I perceived her underlying frustration- incomprehensibility at the laziness and lack of appreciation of our situation. In our privilege and material wealth, living safely without the threat of air-strikes and landmines, why did we not recognize and make more of ourselves in this abundance?
Regardless of her true opinions of the American teenager, she taught me an enormous amount in four years, giving me enough proficiency to achieve the highest score possible in my AP Exams. She taught me to learn language in new ways, inspiring a confidence that would later help encourage me to study and volunteer abroad. Beyond that, knowing her opened my eyes to what it meant to be a refugee, demonstrating starkly what the United States was able to offer both her and me. In a way, knowing her made me more appreciative and proud of my country— a greater sense of patriotism born of the awareness that my country was vast enough to embrace both her and a US-born person like myself.
There is common theme of associating refugees and immigrants with bringing crime, terrorism, and a drain to our social systems. I see the exact opposite in her; she brought knowledge, kindness, and invaluable contribution to our public education system. I think most people, upon reflection, actually know someone directly in their life like her- a stranger in a strange land-that impacted them. I would challenge us all to stop and think about that person. Then consider how they probably felt when they heard about a ban on immigrants and refugees.
And then consider whether anyone was hurt.