By now we have had a chance to talk about why it is in fact a Muslim ban, based on both Trump’s own words and the words of Trump’s circle. I wanted to take a minute and talk about why this Muslim ban is personal to me.
I was born in the United States, spent a few years overseas, and then returned to the States. I am both a citizen and an immigrant. One of my siblings was born in the United States, and some were born overseas. My parents became U.S. citizens. During our move back to the United States, we had to go through experiences where my siblings and my parents were separated based on the color of the passport we held. I remember looking at the color of our passports and wondering why my parents were not treated with the same dignity that I was simply because I had been born on this soil, and they on another soil.
My own life has been one where I have lived in different countries, loved and yearned and grown and lost in this country and beyond. We came back to live permanently in the United States when I was 15. I had to master English, and moved up through public school systems in the South to go to a great university. It was the love and care of amazing teachers, that along with my own parents’ love, propelled me forward. It changed not just my life, but my children’s lives. But I know what it’s like to be in this country as an immigrant, to be an outsider, to have worked my tail off, to “make it.” Yet I still know that it cannot be simply about the hard work and exertion of an individual, the proverbial “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but that it also has to include a system and structure of safety nets, social institutions designed to provide support for all of us, starting with the most vulnerable.
The Muslim ban has been and continues to be very personal. I teach at a school that has at least 36 students from these countries on this list, students who are here legally on student visas. We live in an area where there are about a hundred Iranian students, the best and brightest students from Iran who have mastered the national tests there. In one case, the husband of the family was stranded in Finland, unable to return to the United States even though he had a valid visa. These students are all here legally, and they found themselves in a limbo where they don’t know whether upon leaving the U.S. for an academic conference abroad, or visiting sick family members in their countries, they will be allowed to re-enter the United States.
I have an 85 year old grandmother. Other than her sense of sarcasm, she does not pose a threat to anyone. And even with a green card, we have been unsure if she would be allowed to enter the United States. She may be barred from visiting her family in the United States, and now after Iran’s retaliation barring American citizens, we are barred from visiting our Iranian family. This is personal.
I have three amazing cousins in Switzerland. Their dad, my paternal uncle, is Iranian. Their mom was an amazing Swiss woman whom we lost to cancer. The children have been raised in Switzerland for most of their lives, and they are married there. One of my cousins is a leading world expert on bats. Yup, bats. He travels around the world to study bats in their natural habitat, and goes to nerdy bat expert conferences. His Swiss passport was confiscated by the American embassy because this cousin, a Swiss citizen, had been born in Iran. His Iranian place of birth negated his Swiss citizenship. This is where we are. This is personal.
It hits even closer to home for me. I have four children, and my youngest baby is nine years old, a great love of my life. We live across the street from a beautiful family, and my youngest daughter, L, loves to play with their daughter, R. They are best friends, and their play is angelic, enchanted, and the very stuff of childhood. Watching them play fills me with hope for all that is good and beautiful for humanity. With all of the Trump phenomena over the last 18 months, all of the bashing of Muslims, refugees, immigrants, Hispanics, this hits very close to home. Almost every single Muslim family that I know has a similar story.
My daughter came to me with tears in her eyes because she had heard that Trump would not allow Muslims in the country. She wanted to know if that meant we had to move, and that she would not get to play with her friend across the street anymore. Her question was not about the “United States of America,” something that is too big for her mind to understand, and too small for her soul. No, she simply wanted to know if she could continue to play with her best friend.
I did what any loving parent would do: I held her in my arms, wiped her tears, and told her that, no, we did not have to move. I told her that we would keep her safe, and we would do everything needed to make her feel safe. She was unsure, and said: “But he is president. And he said he wouldn’t let Muslims be here. We are Muslim. What’s going to happen to us? Can I keep playing with R?” I assured her that we are a nation of laws, and there are many people in America who are committed to her safety and well-being, and that there are so many people supporting her.
But what do I do when in my own heart, I am not sure? What do I do when I myself am full of doubts about what’s next? How can I promise her that she is safe when words like “Japanese internment camp” are being tossed around favorably? What will happen if (when?) there is another terrorist attack on American soil?
How I do make the plurality of people in the country who support Trump’s policies understand this? It’s not that I am merely intellectually opposed to Trump’s policies. It’s that my babies’ safety and peace of mind is at stake. And, yes, I am furious that the fear mongering of a few politicians makes so many of our babies feel unsafe, unwelcomed, and unwanted in their own country.
This is personal because it is about the United States of America.
So no, I don’t believe that it’s our task to make America great again. I have never bought into the notion of American exceptionalism, not when genocide of Native Americans and centuries of trans-Atlantic slavery and Jim Crow are woven into the DNA of our country. I never have believed, and I do not now believe, that America is the “greatest nation on Earth.” Not when 20 percent of our children live in poverty and not when the divide between the super-haves and the absolutely-have-nothings is greater than ever. Not when we are droning people on so many continents, and not when we now have this Muslim ban. So no, I don’t believe in the greatness of America. But I do believe that it is possible for us to be good. Goodness, kindness, justice, mercy. These are within our reach.
I don’t have delusions about us being the greatest nation on Earth. But I would like for us to be a good nation. And that is personal to me.
I would like to call an America home that is a good country. A just country. A fair country. A loving and kind country that puts the well-being of our babies, care for the most vulnerable of people as our highest priority. That is an America that I want to help build, for my own baby and other people’s babies.
America was never America to me
And yet I swear this oath
America will be!
Yes, this is about Syrian refugees and Iranians and Iraqis, Yemenis and Somalis, Sudanese and Libyans. Yes, this is about Muslims and Hispanics and African Americans and Jews and women. It’s also about America. This America that will be, and must be.
This is personal to me.