Last Monday I went for a short hike up Pico Mountain on the Catamount/Long Trail. I had needed to get outside and move after a full week of debilitating humidity and after feeling “caged” indoors as a survival tactic, taking advantage of whatever meager air conditioning could be found. Monday had been the first day that there had been some relief, and it was probably even nicer up there on the mountain than it was down in the valley only a very short distance away. It was so nice, in fact, that after my hike and after checking for ticks (none found), I rolled down the windows on both sides of my car in order to get a nice cross breeze, and spent some time cooling down while I did some letter writing.
After some time, and seeing several hikers and backpackers start-on–and-come-off the trail, a young woman came off the trailhead and looking around, headed right over to my driver’s side car window.
“Excuse me… Would you happen to be heading into Rutland?”
…And so, though I’m not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers…this was different. It’s the Long Trail, after all, which goes right through Rutland’s backyard, and hikers are a part of the lifestyle here and the economy. And my car seats were uncharacteristically clean of debris, so I agreed to take her into town, since I had to go there anyway in order to get home.
And it was very pleasant and brought back all the great memories I had of meeting strangers and of locals who had loaned me a helping hand or kindness whenever I had been traveling abroad. My passenger—Laura—was from the Netherlands and was hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. She had started in Georgia and it had taken her about four months to arrive in Vermont at Pico Peak. She’d been camping on the trail the last four nights, and so was ready to spend a night in a real bed at the downtown hostel on Center Street, and also to replenish her dwindling food supplies at the grocery store.
At first, I think I found myself apologizing for my city—which I myself, even having been born and raised here, do not always fully appreciate… But as we drove down the mountain I found myself giving her some history of the place (“Rutland used to be the marble quarrying capitol of the world at one time…”) and pointing out landmarks and historic public architecture. (“This section of the mountain road had been washed out by Hurricane Irene a few years ago…you can still see there where the river caused so much devastation…People on the mountain were cut-off from supplies for a while, but locals and the Vermont Reserves used helicopters and other creative means to bring supplies to them until traveling routes could be reestablished”; “That’s a statue commemorating the Green Mountain Boys militia who helped to win the Revolutionary war…”; “All the steeples you can see coming into the valley here mostly represent different Catholic Churches created by the ethnic barrios of various immigrant populations that came to work in the marble industry…Today everyone knows where those various barrios and ethnic neighborhoods used to exist—centered around each church—but the years and time have erased their specific ethnic distinctions.”)
I pointed out the town green and gazebo where we had weekly summer band concerts. We turned the corner of Center Street and saw all the cities fire engines out in their brilliant chrome and red. I pointed out the historic Rutland Free Library, the Courthouse, my favorite independent coffee house, the many food, drink, and entertainment option surrounding her chosen boarding location. I let her know about the art galleries on the corner just at the end of the street as well as down the Alley entrance. …And by the time we arrived at the hostel, my foreign passenger said that she thought Rutland was a pretty interesting place, despite my apologies for it earlier.
She tried to offer me “taxi fare” for the ride, but I wouldn’t hear of it—that’s not how we do things here in Rutland, much less Vermont. The exchange rate was the joy and pleasure of getting to know a complete stranger and having made both our worlds a fraction of a smidgen smaller (I asked her likely as many questions about her journey as she asked about Rutland.) …Wouldn’t it have been awful if I had recoiled from this young women for fear of some contagious disease that she had brought along with her from her travels overseas? No connection would have been made; no expansion of understanding of the breadth of our different cultures—or how alike they were.
Earlier this spring, the mayor of my small city, in response to inquiries from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, agreed to allow up to 100 Syrian refugees to be resettled here. The backlash against this humanitarian show of goodwill was harsh and brutal.
Enflamed by the xenophobic rhetoric of the early Republican presidential primary race, a certain population of my city responded by blaming the mayor for acting without the authority of the city’s board of aldermen, and of making executive decisions without the input of its citizens. Others countered by creating welcoming committees and tasked themselves with preparing resources, housing, and goods for eventual resettled refugees assigned to this area. Those opposed to resettlement were only invigorated to protest even more loudly… And a virtual civil war has erupted in local letters to the editor as well as between two separate facebook groups, one for each side of the issue.
Those opposed to refugee resettlement have gone to extreme lengths and ideas in order to squash the eventual execution of the resettlement plan. They started multiple petitions within the city and in several surrounding towns in the county to place the resettlement issue on the election ballot, claiming that it should be up to current citizens whether or not new immigrants are allowed to come and live in the area. (Already sounds rather unconstitutional and restrictive of freedom of movement, doesn’t it?) They also invited national demagogues from right-wing extremist and hate groups to come and speak at “public” forums, in order to give the appearance of public information sessions for those with questions. (Unfortunately, this only gave a platform for misinformation by bigots who fomented the fear of already ignorant citizens.) Every conceivable excuse and falsehood has been proposed by those in opposition, including the assertion that a massive outbreak of tuberculosis would result from infected refugees coming to the area. As a result, countless state resources have been expended, and extensive hours committed by state officials and government epidemiologists in order to stanch such misinformation and dispel false immigrant health statistics. In fact there is a certain doctor here who is so vociferously against refugee resettlement that he has committed to a campaign of terrorizing his fellow citizens with this constant onslaught of medical misinformation…a doctor!
There has been so much vitriol regarding the issue that I have been loathe to get involved in the fray…not that I don’t have an opinion. But, there is nothing that can be said to influence the debate with any decorum…neither side seems willing to hear argument, much less take into consideration reasonable points of debate. Instead, accusation follows each point…as though people have somehow learned their civility from online comment threads in which no empathy is necessary. The end product of all this “us” and “them” argumentation is the creation of a social climate in which it becomes permissible and acceptable to hate a theoretical population that does not even live here yet. These community members opposed to resettlement for asylum seekers have worked so hard at creating reasons to dislike Syrian foreigners, that it is now their nature to dismiss them and disrespect them without even having met them yet.
This is the same cultural phenomenon that led to an increase in hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom—xenophobic rhetoric was “corroborated” by the vote to leave the European Union, thus somehow sanctioning that it was okay to dislike and abuse people deemed as immigrant intruders on British traditionalism. Hate crimes spiked dramatically in the weeks following the vote as a result.
It is disheartening to me to see so much folly, so much ignorance, so much self-righteousness, so much egocentrism, so much selfishness, so much fear…
I simply do not understand how people forget things… or why we are even taught history lessons in school if no student ever takes to heart what the purpose of history lessons are…a resource tool that one can use to practice prudence in the face of future atrocities and the avoidance of past human folly…
Why are people afraid of immigrants when they themselves or their recently past-generational relatives were themselves immigrants?
How can people who must hyphenate their ethnic genealogy (Irish-Italian; French-Irish; Scottish-French; and so on…) suddenly be afraid of the integration of a new ethnic population of people?
Why would anyone deny humanitarian response and aid to the war-torn and the war-devastated, when time after time we observe with regret not having intervened or not having given more or faster humanitarian aid to victims of past wars and genocide? How do we forget our shame for not acting during the atrocities committed in Sarajevo or in Rowanda or for countless other war crimes committed in our lifetimes?
How can we not remember the shame of Japanese-American and Italian-American concentration camps during the crisis of World War II? How are we able to tolerate a presidential candidate saying “We ought to round up all the Muslims until we figure out what is going on…”? (If you don’t know what’s going on, you are not paying attention or not listening hard enough. If you still don’t understand after opening your ears and eyes, then you must be too lazy to investigate further, because the information on “what is happening” is readily available.)
How do we forget the Jewish refugees, fleeing certain death in Europe during World War II, who were turned away from American shores because of our own fear of terrorist and spy infiltration? Thousands of Jewish asylum seekers died as a result.
How do we remember these acts of American cowardice and shame and not come to the realization that we are ready to repeat the same shameful acts?
How does a doctor, foresworn by the Hippocratic Oath, blatantly falsify medical information towards his personal preference of the exclusion of a race of people? How does a doctor, “with special obligations to all his fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm,” have the audacity to create his own epidemic of fear amongst his fellow citizens? And further, how does a doctor sworn to aid and heal the sick, complain about potential infection from a foreign population, when he is utterly capable of helping alleviate that same completely curable infectious disease among the afflicted? Why would a doctor complain about the worst-case scenario of a situation he has the ability to eradicate with his medical knowledge? Why terrorize instead of act to cure the sick?
The faction of residents who are ready to welcome new refugees to the area have hosted several symposiums and public meetings and drives for clothing and household goods. I attended one of these gatherings the other evening and was astounded at how touched I was by the speaker’s stories. Deborah Harte Felmeth is a storyteller and music teacher who married a Syrian gentleman and lives part of each year in Syria. She told us stories about the country and of the people and of customs and traditions. She was an excellent public speaker, and brought her tales to vivid life in the church where we met.
I was reminded that storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective ways to convey feeling and emotion and empathy. A first-hand experience of an interaction with a Syrian mother and her two children—each with their own idiosyncrasies: excitement, rambunctiousness, shyness, inquisitiveness—is so much more influential than someone erratically conjecturing about the damage that personal interaction might reap on a community. A story that reflects the joy and sorrows and ecstasies and disappointments that I experience in my own life…is so much more moving than the fear-mongering about a contagious disease that has virtually zero chance to affect my life or anyone in my community.
I am no stranger to prejudice. When you are a minority, prejudice is a foregone conclusion and challenge that must be met in life. The particular type of minority class that I fall into—being gay—is one that doesn’t necessarily exhibit a visible signifier (like skin color, or hair texture). Because of this, some people think that it is a “choice” that is made to participate in a “homosexual lifestyle,” as though it were something that one could opt for. Any gay person will tell you that this is false. And the best argument against such an accusation is the simple question: “Why would anyone choose to put up with the violence, denigration, social disgust, and discrimination that accompanies homosexuality?” No one would choose those things. If they did, that would mean that the entire population of LGBT individuals fetishized masochism and the accompanying derision of their neighbors.
I point this out because refugees face a similar predicament in being placed in a country and within communities that do not want them… Why would anyone choose to be an immigrant refugee knowing that they would not be welcomed where they were relocated? No one lightly chooses to become a refugee. No one chooses to be displaced from one’s homeland. These are people who literally have no choice other than the potential for immanent death by random airstrikes or by biological weapons. These are people who have suffered the loss of family, home, and all of their physical possessions…who would choose that?
And so what is our response?
How can there be any response other than empathy?
The civil cold war that is raging in my hometown is one between those who were taught or remember the art of empathy… and those who were only taught selfishness or have forgotten the art of empathy. There is no other reasonable answer.
It is too simplistic to say that Americans are acting out of fear. Fear of losing their comfortable status quo? Fear of an infringement on some particular way of life that will be overshadowed? Fear that Americans are not capable of adaptation? Or of sharing the overabundance of food that we throw out by the tons every day? Or fear of a loss of jobs that self-absorbed Americans refuse to perform anyway, because it is beneath their station?
If you wish to speak about fear, try imagining the fear of not knowing where you will sleep because your government has destroyed every building in your city. If you wish to speak about fear, try imagining your own government using biological weapons in order to painfully suffocate you and all the stragglers in your destroyed city. Where do you run to try to escape? If you wish to speak about fear, try imagining where your next meal will come from or how you will feed the rest of your family when there are no stores left to supply food or water, and you live in a desert where there has been a drought for years-on-end. If you wish to speak about fear, try imagining asking for food, water, and shelter from a country to which you have been forced to flee on foot, full of people who despise you for your filth and religion and poverty, and who cannot understand your foreign tongue. Try to imagine how you would wish to be treated by your foreign hosts while you flail in your weariness and terror…
And those who have forgotten or abandoned empathy somehow refuse to admit that this is a character flaw. They are loath to recognize it in themselves, or admit their lack of empathy. They would rather put blame somewhere else, and can be counted upon to place it there. Instead of admitting they might be lacking in empathy, suddenly everyone else is culpable of this exact malady for betraying U.S. veterans or for abandoning the homeless or for ignoring the gigantic drug crisis that afflicts the region (when in fact, all of these issues are being addressed already—mostly by the same communities of people who are ready to embrace new refugees; all these things are simply the definition of a red herring meant to obfuscate the central issue). Also forgotten by the self-righteous is the fact that their precious Christian religion—somehow threatened by the possible influx of Muslim practitioners—commits them to this art of empathy.
As a former Benedictine postulant, I can confirm that this art was a part of everyday monastic life… For Benedictine rule prescribes that everyone who comes to the monastic community is to be treated as though he or she were the living Christ…because he or she might just be the living Christ. And after loving the Lord God, the most important rule given by the Christ was to love thy neighbor (or stranger) as thyself…the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Before you judge another, walk a mile in his shoes. Whatsoever you do to another, that you do unto me, the Son of Man.
What would you do to the refugees who settle here? Would you walk a mile in their shoes in the bombed-out city of Allepo before you refused them shelter and refuge in the safety and comfort of your own city? Would you offer a ride into town to a traveling hiker for a night’s rest at the local hostel? Will you apologize for your city’s apathy and intolerance? Or will you share a story about your city’s history of welcoming spirit and grace?