If you were an immigrant, forced to leave your home,
"[W]ould you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That...[w]ould not afford you an abode on earth...,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity."
Shakespeare, "The Book of Sir Thomas More"
I had an opportunity to reflect on the implications of this when a couple of weeks ago, I had the great privilege to meet modern-day equivalents of Shakespeare's "strangers." Along with a church group, I visited an apartment complex populated by refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries--Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan... We were there to reach out to them and to provide them with packages of essentials. But what they provided to us was infinitely more valuable.
Our first encounter was with a bright, cheeky boy of about ten, with smooth olive skin, a cowlick and an impish grin. He approached us with no shyness or hesitancy and started chattering away in almost perfect English. He told us he was from Afghanistan and had been in this country only about three months. He said he had never spoken English before he came here, which was extraordinary considering he was completely fluent and had almost no trace of an accent. He informed us modestly that he was "a genius in math," and given his extraordinary facility with languages, I didn't find that hard to believe. He was so attractive, brilliant and engaging that it was hard to resist the temptation to reach out and hug him, although as a typical boy, he certainly would have been outraged!
Our group visited five families, and I was deeply moved and awed by the experience. The ones we visited were from Syria and had come to the US via camps in Jordan or Egypt. Of course, we didn't ask, but I'm sure many, if not all of them, have stories of hardships, tragedy and horror that would have made us shudder. But the only mention of such things was when one women casually mentioned that her husband's father had been killed and her husband did not want to go back to Syria.
Far from the the dark and haunted demeanor that might have been expected of survivors, the mood in the homes we visited was warm, joyful and forward looking. Although the apartments were small and modest, and in one family seven adults lived in one small unit, they were beautifully decorated and organized. And even the home with nothing but a mattress on the living room floor was spotless. They greeted us with warmth and openhearted hospitality, as honored guests. They spoke to us about their homes and families. And their jobs. I'm sure that some of them were highly-educated professionals in their home countries, but they did not complain about taking menial jobs to support their families. They were grateful just to be free, to be safe, to be together.
Afterwards, I wished that all those who demonize immigrants as "rapists," "terrorists," and "gang members," could meet these lovely people in person. That would certainly show them their prejudices were unfounded. But then I thought, "Would it really?" Prejudices are tenacious things, even when there is no factual basis to support them. Prejudice can bend and twist even demonstrable facts to fit a pre-determined narrative.
So even if they could see what I saw, would they truly be able to see? That’s a question I've been asking myself repeatedly since then. I was reminded of a scene from CS Lewis' That Hideous Strength, in which Mark, who is involved in an insidious conspiracy to control the world, visits a quaint English village which is slated for demolition as part of its program of "modernization."
Although Mark finds this "backward" and "reactionary" place unexpectedly attractive, "All this did not in the least influence his sociological convictions....[H]is education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, plowman or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as 'man' or 'woman.' He preferred to write about 'vocational groups,' 'elements,' 'classes' and 'populations:' for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."
If such is the dehumanizing effect of a cold, detached scholasticism--if it is capable of reducing the beauty and complexity of flesh and blood to static, frozen abstractions--how much more devastating is a cold, ignorant hatred borne of blind prejudice and unreasoning panic? How much greater a threat to the soul of a country is an unending barrage of frenzied malevolent propaganda--"rapists," "drug-lords," "terrorists" and "gang members," "invading" and "infesting" our great country? OUR country?? As if it is not a demonstrable fact that at some point, we all were immigrants.
So even if they could see the lovely, warm engaging people before them, their response would no doubt be a series of "Yeah, buts.." "Yeah, but the good ones are the ones who come here." "Yeah, but these are the exceptions." "Yeah, they're nice to our faces, but who knows what they're saying behind our backs."
So what is the answer? I wish I knew. Ultimately, the answer is nothing less than a complete change of heart--a moral awakening. But how can that be brought about? In the Civil Rights Era, it took the demonstration of brutality on the part of the segregationists and terrible tragedy to rouse the conscience of a nation. I pray that such tragedies are not required in 2019 to awaken those xenophobes to the dire consequences of the hardness of their hearts!