[Update on 11/20/15: I’m embarrassed to say that I briefly deleted this post. I re-read the way I’d phrased things and I thought it might have come across as bragging or being holier-than-thou. This is the phenomenon known as Catholic Guilt. That was absolutely never my intention. I only wanted to enumerate the many ways that one can help. But I forgot the ol’ never let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.
I also received several comments and emails expressing fear about “radicalization” – I address that too in this update. All updated parts are in . Again, you can support Syrian Community Network here.]
If you’re anything like me, you watched with shock and sadness as so many governors issued statements that they would be refusing any further Syrian refugees in their respective states.
The state I’m originally from (Illinois), the state my boyfriend Sean is originally from (New Jersey), and the state in which we both currently live (Arizona). All three states joined so many others in saying they would turn away these refugees because they are afraid some of them might be ISIS sympathizers.
There are 12 million people, half of whom are children, who have fled their homes in Syria escaping ISIS and civil war. Before ISIS, many faced mass executions of near-genocidal proportions under the Assad regime in Syria. Many others escaped a life of religious persecution. But they were all desperate enough to have to leave their home with no promise of another home.
I’ve never felt that desperate. I’ve never had to choose homelessness. But I know some people who have. My family came to this country from a poor and war-torn Ireland within the last century.
My grandfather James Dolan’s (a.k.a. “Grumpy”) family left County Cavan in the north of Ireland, which had been home to many of the battles. Considered by many to be a terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Army had brought many of their active rebellions and guerrilla warfare to their hometown. Many civilians died in what was considered an active rebellion against our own ally Great Britain.
When they came to this country, it would have been very easy for them to be mistaken for those who would wish to commit terrorist activities when all they really wanted to do was to give their children a better life free from war and poverty.
They settled in Chicago. They were met with distrust, animosity, and scorn.
At one point, one of our nation’s founding fathers, Ben Franklin, had this to say about German immigrants:
“Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
He worried that the ones who immigrated to the U.S. were, “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation”
I can think of at least three recent political speeches that have had similar rhetoric.
Our Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French, bears this inscription:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
My grandparents and great-grandparents were very poor, they were very tired, and as far as I could tell, they were lifelong huddlers. They probably would not have appreciated being called wretched refuse, but surely they’d been called worse.
Grumpy’s family arrived to limited job prospects, poor housing options, and politicians who thought them inferior to the Americans already living here.
But they stayed in this country because they loved its traditions. They loved White Sox baseball, they loved schools for their children, they loved their neighbors, they loved the music, food, movies, but most of all they loved the opportunity.
You would have to be head over heels in love with a country to counteract the fact that some of its people actively discriminated against you.
I understand how lucky they were to have the skin color they did. I know there are other immigrants here who took far longer to be accepted. Many are still fighting for equal opportunities.
I’m not breaking new ground by telling this story about my family. In fact, I’m telling the story of many of you reading this.
I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic high school, I lived in Paris and studied theology at L’Institut Catholique de Paris for college, and I graduated from University of San Diego with a degree with Theology and Religious Studies.
I can’t say I use that degree much (at all) in my day-to-day life. But just as in any field of study, there are some fundamentals we learned:
1. Jesus demands that we care for the most vulnerable among us. The poor, homeless, sick, imprisoned, oppressed, abused, and helpless.
2. He demands that we not only help the world’s vulnerable, but that we do it especially when it is uncomfortable. Jesus only told us to do what he himself did. He touched lepers, he interacted with vagrants and outcasts, he healed sick people who were almost certainly contagious, he traveled to places where he knew he wasn’t welcome, he washed the feet of his friends, he died on a cross. None of that was comfortable. But he did it because he expected us to do it too (but pls don’t try to die on a cross – 0 stars, would not advise).
3. Everything is to be done in the spirit of Matthew 25:34-40:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?’ The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
When I lived in Paris, one of my favorite bookstores was the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Over the front door there was a sign with a quote from William Butler Yeats, my grandfather’s favorite poet. It reads, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
The other day, that bookstore made headlines. It sheltered around 20 people during the ISIS attacks in Paris last week. They darkened the windows and allowed people to use their phone to call home. They could have easily turned these desperate people away. They could have shuttered their windows and locked their doors, afraid that anybody entering might bring the carnage outside into the bookstore with them. But they didn’t. They took the strangers in.
About three weeks ago, Grumpy (the Yeats groupie) passed away. One of his favorite holidays was Thanksgiving. When his family came to this country, it was one of the first American traditions they embraced. I have so many memories of him at Thanksgiving with his wife, their ten children and their children’s spouses, and their children’s children – all thirty of us grandkids.
It will certainly be strange to have a Thanksgiving celebration without him. But I know a way we can still have him there with us. We can bring one of his earliest associations with American hospitality and togetherness to local Syrian refugees. Hear me out…
Sean and I will be in Chicago for Thanksgiving next week. The Chicago-based Syrian Community Network has housed and supported around 15 refugee families in the Chicagoland area over the last couple of years.
Sean and I (along with my family) will join Syrian Community Network next week by hosting all of their refugee families for a big Thanksgiving dinner to welcome them to America.
If you live in Chicago, these people are your neighbors. They need winter coats, non-perishable food, children’s school supplies, and personal items too. If you can’t personally donate items or money, you can donate your time. You can help them build resumes, fill out job applications, or offer job training or English lessons.
If you’d rather give globally, you can also support by donating to the International Committee of the Red Cross. They are working directly with the refugee camps in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.
[NOTE: The International Rescue Committee is also going to be hosting a Northern California Thanksgiving dinner with Syrian refugee families in the Bay Area. I encourage all of my Oakland friends to attend that. You can find more information about it here.]
There are 2,174 Syrian refugees already living in this country. The White House director of communications recently said, “2,174 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the US after a vigorous vetting process. ZERO have been arrested or removed on terrorism charges.”
Further, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner added, “Refugees are subjected to the strictest security vetting of any travelers entering the USA and those from Syria are subjected to an additional level of scrutiny above that.”
[These 15 refugee families in Chicago are already here. They underwent years of intensive vetting by the United Nations, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. They undergo dozens of interviews here and abroad. They provide biometric data and extensive contact information about their support network already in the U.S.
According to former ISIS hostage Nicolas Henin, “they fear our unity more than our airstrikes.” And the last thing they want is for us to support these refugees because, according to Henin, “central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence.”
Changing hearts and minds is not something that can be done from the “top down” – that is, you can’t expect politicians or laws or military actions to change the way people view one another and how they act toward each other as a result.
Hearts and minds are changed through small actions that we all have the ability to take every single day.
We see on the news that we should fear these refugees, half of whom are children. That there’s a chance they could “radicalize” once they get here. I in no way want to even lend credence to this fear, but wouldn’t you say that the single best way to prevent radicalization is through one-on-one ambassadorship?
Like it or not, you are an ambassador for this country. Everything you do has the propensity to be perceived as our culture to those who are new here. Don’t waste your ambassadorship. Our culture is our greatest asset.
During some of the Cold War’s coldest years, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and many other African American musicians became “Jazz Ambassadors”. They were sent on official U.S. diplomacy missions to many places along the Iron Curtain as well as to developing nations. Their job? Not to sit down with heads of state and hammer out nuanced diplomatic strategies. But to play music. To bring our culture to the world.
These were African American musicians who faced countless discriminations at home, but they didn’t bring that abroad. They brought their music.
If you don’t have music, bring what you do have. Coats, school supplies, non-perishable food items, etc. But most importantly, bring your sense of hospitality to a stranger. Consider that your diplomatic mission.]
I encourage you to find an organization that supports refugee families in your neighborhood. Welcome them. Ask them if they need help.
Because when you reject the least of us, you reject Christ.