We Were Once Refugees, Too

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly available for purchase here.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel the need for any identity more specific than “American”. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where the other kids had traditions, families, and faces that looked like mine. What need had I for anything beyond that?

Reading Galway Bay, a novelized version of the author’s great-grandmother’s sojourn from Ireland to America, was the beginning of an awakening on my part, that the heritage that extended beyond my grandparents was more significant than names and dates on a ledger in the archives of various city halls.

I read this book several years ago, and my realization was compounded by my first trip to Ireland last year. History was taken out of textbooks and became as vibrant and alive as myself. Pre-independence, the Irish were second-class citizens in their own country. Our language was outlawed, our religion demonized, and the governing forces painted us in the caricature of apes. When the only food we had that they didn’t see fit to steal rotted in the blight, they left us to starve. When American Choctaws sent money to ease our suffering, they stole that too.

Faced with slow, agonizing death, the Irish turned to the uncertainty of the ocean. Families were torn apart, never knowing if there would be a reunion of parent and child, brother and sister, ever again. No one knew if we would survive America, but we knew for damn sure we would die in Ireland. To this day, Irish Americans outnumber Irish nationals.

In America, we were still the poor and the pissed-on, but through resiliency and the support of others unloved by society (Native Americans, Black Americans, Jewish immigrants) we survived. We thrived. We even returned home to see where it all had started. By the time we were three generations deep, the children of Irish immigrants were indistinguishable from any other white Americans. We were assimilated.

We have, I think, assimilated too well. Too often, from the lips of family members, I’ve heard the same words and stereotypes that were once used to dehumanize our ancestors, being turned against other ethnic groups. We have lost sight of solidarity and adopted the aspect of our oppressors, much like the pigs in Animal Farm.

To be clear, Irish assimilation is not because we were more tenacious or intelligent than anyone else. It is the whiteness of our skin that led to our privileged place in modern society, and nothing more. Had Ireland been closer to the equator, we would never have put one of our own in the White House, and the stereotype of the drunken Irish would be a reason not to hire us instead of a mildly offensive joke.

White skin is armor, and Trump’s America is a battleground for the safekeeping of the rights and values this country was founded upon. On the same weekend we honor the victims of the Holocaust and tweet out #NeverAgain, Trump issued a ban prohibiting Muslims from given countries from entering the US, even as they flee certain death in their homelands–and too many of my fellow Irish-Americans support a policy that would’ve spelled our own doom if it had been enacted a century and a half ago.

The naysayers all have their reasons as to why “this time it’s different”. They had them in 1939 when we turned away the Jews. They had them when we were turning away the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1900’s and cut out whole swaths of the entire Asian continent in 1917. They have them now as we turn away green card holders and refugees, and hopefully this will be the last stand and we won’t ever have a cultural wave of apathy or antipathy towards those seeking safety ever again, but I doubt it. Hatred is hard to kill.

American values should not lie in the empty promises of politicians or solemn reflections on July 4th. No matter how much I value my Irish ancestry, I value my American nationality more, and being American means hitting the pavement to protect Black Lives, means protesting an oppressive government, and means making room for those who seek sanctuary on our shores.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So get out there and act like it.

Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker

Available for purchase here.

To date, while the film adaptation starring Tina Fey piqued my interest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I haven’t actually seen it. I don’t know if the movie does justice to Barker’s real life experiences in the Middle East, but I do know that Barker, if anything, undersells the position she was in, working alongside her handlers and private citizens while interviewing Taliban leaders and rural warlords. It’s said that humans can get used to anything, and so it seems, while Barker recounts her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the same blasé tone as she recounts her trips back and forth to Chicago, home of the Tribune, which originally dispatched her.

I’m loathe to bemoan the state of media in Western society, but I will concede that the fast pace of news, the availability of multiple sources, the thinkpieces that read as articles, all combine to contribute to shortened attention spans. Barker’s time in Afghanistan, and later Pakistan, occurred at a time when American attention and sensibilities were focused on Iraq (which has been since displaced by Iran and Syria in our cultural consciousness).

Barker does better than to glamorize her chosen profession. For as much as she was in the center of a maelstrom of international affairs, her memoir is as full of waiting as her real life was, epochs marked by long stretches of questioning and self-doubt, even while she gloried in calling Afghanistan her home.

The latter half of the book, which focuses on her time in Pakistan, is less effusive. For all that Westerners lump the entire region into one amorphous culture, it’s clear Barker had a yen for Afghanistan that Pakistan couldn’t offer, but two of her most humanizing anecdotes occur in Islamabad.

The first is when Barker, tired of being groped in Pakistani crowds, an experience she describes as unremarkable and par for the course at the time, gets fed up and grabs and wrenches the wrist of one of her assailants, leaving him whimpering in pain and embarrassment. Perhaps it was an ugly American thing to do–she was warned off doing so numerous times by her handlers–but this ugly American whooped out loud after reading that passage.

The second is Barker’s sense of real, keening grief when she details the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was as beloved by Barker as she was her native Pakistan, and reading the story of her death is less an exercise in journalism and more a beautifully detailed description of mourning, even as she highlights the political meaning behind the loss.

A book is not an article, and all the better for that. A book, while still a limited medium, can scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of a culture, and western readers should attempt to add more to their reading lists from the area that’s dominated our new cycle for so long. It’s much greater than mainstream media would want us to believe.


Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

Available for purchase here.

Westerners, myself included, have a tendency to lump all of the Middle East into a single image, one supported by mainstream media and political agendas. Pakistan is Afghanistan is Iraq, and so on and so forth. And while those cultures have grown up with our great artists and writers as their cultural touchstones, we rarely return the favor, which is of greatest detriment to ourselves, because we are missing out on truly engaging, beautiful work.

Shamsie is a contemporary writer whose novel Broken Verses examines life in immediate post 9/11 Karachi, where the heroine, Aasmaani, is working for Pakistan’s first independent television station. Aasmaani is an upper class woman, well-educated, living alone although very close to her sister and brother-in-law. On the surface, she seems to have everything going for her, great career, a loving father, a stepmother who treats her like her own daughter, and a burgeoning romance with one of her producers, but in reality she is haunted by the disappearance of her mother some fourteen years earlier.

Aasmaani’s mother, Samina Akram, was a feminist famed throughout Pakistan as much for her activism as her relationship with the Poet, an incendiary writer known only by his moniker. When Aasmaani was fourteen, the Poet was beaten and kidnapped, presumed dead. Two years later, her mother disappeared.

Disappearance was par for the course for Samina, who spent Aasmaani’s childhood in and out of exile in various countries for her political actions. It’s a fascinating dichotomy–Samina flees to escape persecution, but Aasmaani can easily access her on school holidays. The final disappearing act, however, is for all intents and purposes, permanent, and modern-day Aasmaani lives her life under the assumption that her mother is dead.

After the launch of the quiz show Aasmaani works for goes live, she begins to receive letters written in her mother and the Poet’s secret code, stoking the fire of hope that one of them is still alive. Aasmaani descends into the world she’s left behind, a delicate balance between power and persecution that shadows the brilliance of her otherwise bright, happy life. As much as the dangers around searching for her lost family her inner demons threaten to bring her down, and the whole story is a beautiful blend of internal and external struggle.

Light hints of the story lend a personal touch to the global struggle faced by Middle Eastern Muslims. Aasmaani’s love interest talks about his time in New York, a city he lived in and loved, which ceased to love him back after 9/11. Combined with a few short interludes about what it’s like to work during the day while celebrating Ramadan (hint: everyone is grouchy) helps make the Pakistani setting more real and vibrant than a hundred biased news reports.

X is for Xenophobia

Much as it pains me to type these words, and as much as I’m still holding out for Bernie Sanders to have a huge upset at this year’s DNC, Trump and Clinton are looking to be the frontrunners for the general election this November. Nearly everyone I know claims they are going to flee to Canada if the opposing candidate–or indeed, either candidate–is elected president.

Now, yes, I realize these statements are made partially, if not fully, in jest. Yet, at least half the people making these jokes were opposed to offering shelter to Syrian refugees last year. Incidentally, most of those people also claimed to be Christians. Make of that what you will.

It’s not the first time the US refused desperate people a safe haven. During the German rise to power that preceded the second world war, the US had strict anti-immigration policies that blocked European Jews from finding a home on US soil, famously resulting in some of them dying in the Holocaust. We have a short memory when it comes to retaining our historical lessons.

Anti-Islamic sentiment runs ever higher in this country–Trump even threatens to evict current Muslim Americans in the name of safety. We have hate to spare, though. Mexicans and Mexican Americans are often accused of stealing jobs, never mind that it was American economic policy that destabilized the Mexican economy and sent Mexican citizens over the border in desperation, seeking work and a way to provide for themselves.

The (white) American ideal is nothing new. Of all the ethnic groups that have been demoralized and loathed throughout our history, the Irish had the easiest time assimilating, due in no small part to our white skin and shared cultural norms with the dominant groups. As much as people may claim that we are a melting pot, our culture shows little real love for diversity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Our current political atmosphere is tinged with a longing to return to a simpler time. Trump is the most overt, with his “Make America Great Again” rhetoric. Let me be clear: America, that is, the United States, has never been great. Never for women, people of color, poor people, queer people, for the huddled masses we purportedly welcome via the Statue of Liberty. We have been nothing but a better option, a whiff of hope, a brighter future over the darkness of the past. We are a reserve of untapped potential, one that will never come to fruition if we don’t let go of our old prejudices.

Suggested Reading: The Muslims are Coming by Arun Kundnani, Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

E is for Eurocentrism

I admit, I overlaid my Facebook profile picture with the French flag after last year’s Paris attacks. (It’s still like that, by the way. I’m not entirely sure how to remove it, to be frank). I spread the news of the Belgium attacks. And yes, these were tragedies. People should know about what happened. People should care about the lives lost, and the why’s and how’s of what happened, so we can do our best to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring.

I didn’t do the same, at least not to the same degree, when terrorism struck Turkey, or Yemen, or the Ivory Coast, mainly because I didn’t know about them. I shared pieces about the attack in Lahore, but there was no option to fly the Pakistani flag in solidarity with the victims. Our media doesn’t grant the same coverage to the same attacks, regardless of what they say about the objectivity of their bias.

The predominant suggestion is that Europe, especially Paris, is a cherished commodity among Westerners. Many Americans have been to Europe, myself included. Few have been to Africa or  the Middle East, so what happens there seems removed, remote, where attacks on European soil feel personal. Most Americans can trace at least part of their ancestry to Europe, so, the conventional wisdom goes, we feel a deep connection to the places and monuments there.

Of course that wisdom ignores the fact that the racial makeup of Europe is startlingly similar to the United States. In short, we pay more attention to the tragedies of white people. Crimes that happen to white Americans get more media coverage than the same crimes that happen to Americans of color, and the same principle applies when we extend into coverage of world events.

We also blame other parts of the world. When ISIS claimed the Brussels attack, it was rightfully seen as a terrorist act on European soil, but when they decimated Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, et al, questions were asked. “Why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t they fight back? How did they allow these people to take control?” Abraham Erskine said it best in Captain America: the First Avenger: “So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” The same principle applies with ISIS in the modern age; a shared nationality makes the citizens and refugees from the various Middle Eastern countries from which sprung ISIS no more culpable for their terrorist actions than the rest of the world. They are terrified civilian individuals pit against a powerful, highly trained militia. They are us, with a different language.

In the early days of humanity, tribalism made sense. Resources were scarce and our species was at the mercy of the elements. Those are ancient realities, however, and with technology and evolution, we live in a global society. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the goings-on around the planet, and to ignore the suffering of our fellow man because of their different color, culture, or religion is subhuman. It’s a return to our prehistoric selves. It’s a denial of who we claim to be: compassionate, caring, committed to improving the world.

Worse still, creating walls limits the options of the desperate and disparate, giving ISIS and Boko Haram and other terrorist cells a greater pool of both victims and recruits. Numbers mean nothing when they are scattered and isolated. Terror cells are powerful because they are unified fronts facing haphazard targets. When we pay attention, when we show empathy, when we unify, they become small and powerless in the face of a planet strong enough to fight back.

Suggested Reading: Eurocentrism by Samir Amin

Diverse News Sources: AlterNet, WikiNews, The Real News