My Friend Ali #RefugeesWelcome

Immigration is such hotly discussed and not very well understood issue in America. We are a country of immigrants and almost all of us can trace our lines back to someone who emigrated here. I only have to go back one generation to two immigrants from different countries who came to the US, met, and married gaining instant melting pot integration into this culture.

But that is an old story. Although it was a generation ago, it’s relegated to a history book era belonging to the last century with it’s tired, hungry, poor, huddled masses. That isn’t what we’re dealing with right now. What we are seeing is a push to change immigration based on misinformation.

The present leader of our nation is trying to close down immigration, freezing visas and building walls. What I feel that those around me don’t see is that we cannot paint all immigration with the same broad brush. There is undocumented immigration sought after by many people trying to gain the American dream who for whatever reasons, good or bad, choose to try to gain access to our country and way of life outside of legal immigration which by nature is limited, expensive, and a long drawn out process. A third type of immigrant comes here seeking asylum. These folks are in imminent danger in their home countries and must literally flee for their lives and throw themselves at the mercy of the rest of the world looking to see where they can land.

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The “Wall” seeks to keep out undocumented immigrants. Freezing visas closes the doors to people seeking asylum who are just trying to find a safe haven and not die, be tortured, imprisoned, or something equally inhumane.

Let me tell you about a young man I know. I’ll call him Ali, a common enough name from his part of the world. Ali is from Iraq. This young man became a refugee when a war we were involved in came to his hometown. Life wasn’t perfect under Saddam Hussein or in the upheaval that followed, but not knowing anything different, he was happy in his land, with his people, his language, and his culture. He could wish for a better or fairer government, improvements to his country, but he never wished to be uprooted.

Then war came to his home. If asked, Ali will tell you how bad it got. He’s not the kind to just talk about negative experiences, but he doesn’t hide from adversity either. No matter where you were, you were unsafe. You could be caught at anytime between crossfire. Anytime he had to go out into the street to get essentials like food, he saw pieces of bodies strewn around everywhere. Homes were destroyed. It became impossible to work. Food was scarce. And even staying at home proved to be unsafe.

The day came when his father became a civilian casualty of war, pulled out of his home, into the streets, and killed. Being the oldest son of 8 siblings, it fell to him to be the head of the household when he was only just nearing adulthood himself and become responsible for them and his mom. In his country, there was no work to feed them, not enough food to be purchased, and they all were in imminent danger of becoming pieces of bodies strewn in the streets just like the father, especially the older boys. Ali wouldn’t stick around to see if he would survive the conflict knowing that it was likely his mother would end up without half her children and unprotected in a culture where it is the duty of the male members of the family to care for and provide for the female members. He also could not seek sanctuary with his government, not agreeing with their stance nor willing to take up arms. He could not seek sanctuary with the opposing army made of foreigners. So they fled.

It wasn’t an easy choice to leave everything you know and own and run to another country, but they did. They went west and ended up in Jordan for a while. Jordan has a similar culture and climate. It was close to what they knew as home, but they weren’t allowed to stay and couldn’t return home. They had to travel further and further away from the land, people, and language they knew and go further west to cultures and peoples whose differences made it very apparent that they’d strayed far from everything they had ever known. All along there was no room at the inn for them. But they continued forward because they could not go back and they could not stay. And no matter how low living conditions might be for the globally homeless, it was a far sight better than becoming carnage in the street. This went on for several years.

They made it to Spain and although some relatives of theirs were granted asylum there, Ali’s family wasn’t permitted to stay. Finally, asylum was granted by a nation across the sea in a whole other continent west.

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Ali and his family were brought to the US as refugees granted asylum. This category of immigrants gets on a fast track to US citizenship and is allowed to immediately begin integration into our country. It’s a very generous thing for us to do, and in this particular case, I believe it was appropriate as we share some of the responsibility for the displacement of many innocent civilians by virtue of being directly involved in this war zone.

Ali now lives in a state with harsh winters very different from his homeland. He shrugs at the weather and the different way of life here knowing that learning to become accustomed to a whole new world is much better than being at risk of death with every breath he takes. He is eagerly embracing our language. He constantly makes lists of words from each conversation he has which he carries in his wallet to study and memorize later. Google translate is his best friend.

I met Ali through work. I am in charge of hiring for my work location. This business exists in an area where there is plenty of unemployment, but people who have grown up in this area don’t want this kind of job. It involves menial labor, like cleaning toilets, and hard work, like moving around product in 50 lb. bundles. And even though it’s better than minimum wage and offers benefits, applicants are scarce.

Ali came in for an interview. I’m not allowed to ask personal questions, but when asked what his previous work experience was, he tells me in broken English, he’s been in this country 2 months and has never had a job in the US. He will work for whoever will hire him and learn to do anything because he needs to support his mother and siblings. His eagerness to do whatever job he’s given impresses me. My fellow Americans turn up their noses at this job and those few who apply often say it’s not what they want to do once they know toilets are involved.

After redirecting the interview to HR approved conversations, I decide to take a chance on him. Seeing an applicant so willing to work, no matter the reason, is a rare gift. And he proved true to his word, always seeking to improve, never complaining about the job duties, and never taking for granted that he now has the means to help support his family.

Over many months I learn pieces of his story and how he ended up here. I only learn about how Ali’s father died the one time I ever see him filled with anxiety. There is a military vehicle out in the parking lot. He doesn’t want to even look in it’s direction. It brings fresh to his mind the last place he saw such a vehicle back in his own hometown. He vividly remembers the carnage, the destruction, the danger, the sadness.

Far from wanting to seek retribution through methods of terror, as our president implies asylum immigrants from these countries may do, the whole experience has turned Ali into a pacifist. He wants nothing to do with war, with the destruction of life. Not only does it turn his stomach, he knows it does nothing good for the poor civilians caught in the middle. He is gentle by nature. He simply wants to live at peace and one day, when he can afford it, he wants to nurture life. He wants to have some pets and breed them.

For him there is nothing more precious than life. Everything else is a blessing.

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