This is what intolerance looks like

By — January 28, 2017

“No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” Shouts are rising into the night sky in Brooklyn as I write this. I just left the Brooklyn federal courthouse, where hundreds of people are chanting that and more, some slogans more angry and profane than others.

A kind of electricity is running through the crowd, which was only growing as I walked home in the cold. Just knowing we were one arm of a national movement tonight to help the men and women stuck right now in New York’s JFK, Atlanta, and other airports around the country because of President Donald Trump’s executive order, which bans refugees from seven countries. None of those seven countries produced the 9/11 hijackers, by the way. Inside the courthouse, the judge was considering a temporary stay that would allow the refugees to remain in the country.

Protesters outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse. (Lauren Wolfe)

This kind of resistance and freedom to gather and protest is what the men and women now being detained are denied in their countries. They are fleeing oppression, war, persecution, and being met with more of the same. And to be clear: These are not economic migrants. They are refugees, which the UN Refugee Agency defines as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

By now many news outlets have reported on the kind of people being detained. They are former translators for the U.S. military in Iraq, whose lives have been at serious risk for years because of their association with us. They are everyday citizens, not terrorists. Then there is the story of Nada, as reported by The New York Times:

Nada, a Yazidi woman from Iraq, was on her way to be reunited with her husband, Khalas, who lives in Washington. The two of them, their last names not released, were granted Special Immigrant visas to the United States as part of a program created to help thousands of Iraqis with ties to the United States, according to The New Yorker. Khalas, a former interpreter for the United States Army, was granted his visa in April. Nada’s visa was approved about a week ago, and her passport on Thursday.

She was turned away, however, when she arrived at the gate for her flight in Dubai, wrote Kirk W. Johnson, the founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. “The flight crew sent her back,” Khalas texted Mr. Johnson, “saying they got orders that no Iraqis with American visas should be boarded.”

What the Islamic State is doing to Yazidis is considered genocide by the UN. The trauma being inflicted on the ethic group is enormous. Women in particular are facing rape and torture by the thousands and not finding enough medical and trauma support if and when they return home. Nada is returning to this hell.

Nearly 80 years ago, in 1939, 908 Jewish refugees fled Germany on a ship called the St. Louis. As they approached North America, their visas were cancelled at their first stop, Cuba. Then, waiting on their last hope—entry into the United States—the U.S. government denied the ship permission to land, according to the United States Holocaust Museum.

Of the 908 refugees returned to Europe, 254 were murdered in the Holocaust.

That was a shameful moment in our history. Because of their religion, the land of Lady Liberty sent these Jews to their death. With this new ban on refugees, we are repeating history, and I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve forgotten. I believe it’s because hate is strong. Fear of Muslims, as once of Jews, is rampant. And this ban will doom many if they are forced to return to their home countries or not be allowed to leave them.

When I was in Lampedusa, Italy, last year, I met a girl named Breka from Somalia, one of the countries included in President Trump’s ban. She was 14 and fled her country because of never-ending war. She thought she might want to go to Belgium because she liked chocolate. She said she wanted to be a pilot. Is this the kind of person we don’t want here? Is this the kind of person who deserves to be sent back into the bleakness of war? Does anyone deserve that?

Tonight we chanted loudly, again and again, “This is what democracy looks like!” But even with a stay for the detained refugees granted, as it was tonight, our democracy is threatened by intolerance. Democracy is looking a little too much like it did in 1939. Now is no time for rest.