I wasn’t surprised Wednesday night when candidate Donald Trump, in keeping with his uncontainable narcissistic, xenophobic character, told an overflow crowd at Keene High School that if he became president he would send all Syrian refugees who had been given sanctuary in the United States home: “I’m putting (refugees) on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration that if I win, they’re going back,” he said.
However, what really both surprised and disappointed me was the boisterous affirmative response to Trump – cheers and hurrahs from the crowd, presumably mostly New Hampshire-ites, in support of Trump’s xenophobia.
Is this what New Hampshire has become?
Is this what’s become of a land nurtured by Native Americans, chiseled from granite ledges by the labor of immigrants, shaped by generations of gnarly-handed sojourners and high-tech innovators, many of whom labor still within our borders?
This summer I bought native corn from an Armenian farm in Salem, sweets from a Syrian baker in Concord and had my aging Swedish Volvo 240 maintained by a Palestinian mechanic. I worshiped in a Manchester mosque, listened to Sunday sermons in Peterborough and drove a student to Shabbat services in Portsmouth.
This year, too, I embraced upon their return to New Hampshire four Bosnians and their families – four sojourners out of many who once came to our Granite State, barely a backpack between them, 20 years ago and who were sheltered and fed by local families, educated in local schools and American universities and who eventually, when they were able, returned home to rebuild their lives and country.
Such is my New Hampshire, Donald Trump, where a 9-year-old solitary traveler, a Lebanese boy with Syrian travel documents – my father – found a home and never feared being sent away.
America has a mixed record welcoming strangers. It took forever for some Americans to admit we dispossessed and stole the land of Native Americans and worked and exploited their land with slave labor – and some are still in denial.
Today, as we take pride in our diversity, innovation and power, we struggle still to be fully inclusive – we struggle still to reconcile our past and futures, our sins and our aspirations but that is what we must do. Because that is who we are.
In Keene, Trump claimed that 200,000 Syrians (the actual number of refugees may be only 110,000) would soon be breaching America’s shores – envisioning a horde of un-vetted, dark-skinned, young male terrorists threatening our way of life if not our very lives and honor. Imagine, I believe Trump was subliminally projecting, what would happen to America if those Syrians aligned themselves with those dark-skinned Mexican rapists and killers who threaten us from the South.
In Keene, Trump’s exclusionary rhetoric, evoking fear and loathing of peoples from the Rio Grande to the Euphrates, sadly found cheers and acceptance.
“There is no sin so great as ignorance,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in Kim.
“Remember this.” Remember, as I and others have written, that America turned away Jews desperate for sanctuary during World War II. Remember, too, as I and others have written, that racism, xenophobia, discrimination and anti-Semitism exist still in some dark American corners, and that we must rightfully struggle to fulfill the promises of our Founding Fathers by resisting such darkness.
Today, remember too that the Middle East is broken in part because of the recklessness of American adventurism and its ignorance of the Middle East. While many Americans want to turn their back on the human tragedy currently roiling the Levant and Europe – the world’s largest refugee crisis since WWII – I believe we are called upon to act. I believe we’re enjoined to struggle for social justice and dignity: “Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards (one’s) fellow-men; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; (and) He exhorts you (repeatedly) so that you might bear (all this) in mind.” (Quran, 16:90)
Amazon Prime won’t be delivering Syrian refugees with a free return policy. They won’t come bar-coded and tagged by FedEx as advocated by candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie so we can track them down and return them to – where? – when The Donald becomes commander in chief.
They’ll come as Syrians who are Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Armenian, Orthodox, Kurd, Circassian and other. They’ll come in part as victims of what Arthur Conolly, a 19th-century British intelligence officer, called “The Great Game,” the struggle for the resources and hegemony over lands once peopled by prophets and poets.
In 1796, Ona Judge Staines, a slave in George Washington’s household and one of Martha’s favorites, escaped from their Philadelphia home.
Upon learning that fugitive had arrived in Portsmouth, President Washington asked for her arrest and repatriation. Joseph Whipple, the collector of customs, defied Washington, choosing not to return Staines to Martha Washington’s service, thus allowing her to live free and die in New Hampshire.
Ona Staines wasn’t returned to bondage because emancipation was the right thing to do.
I believe, too, that Syrian refugees won’t be forcibly returned anywhere – because that is the right thing to do.