America’s real entitlement problem: An anecdote

This morning, I feel compelled to share a short story illustrating the type of people with whom I find it challenging to share this nation. Since November, I have been striving to divert myself from negative to positive thoughts; sometimes, though, one simply needs to get something off one’s chest.

As I was driving to work today, I was briefly stuck at a green light behind a car waiting to turn left. I considered using the right turn-only lane to get around, but it was clearly illegal and unwise at a four-way intersection. I stayed put. The traffic soon cleared and I proceeded through the light, not terribly surprised to find a shiny pickup truck struggling to make it around me in the path I had decided against. In retrospect, I suppose I maintained speed rather than make it easier for him. I figured he didn’t need my coddling.

On the truck, which successfully gained a half-second’s lead on me, was a bumper sticker reading, “Save the world – spay and neuter…” I leaned forward to make out the last few words: “…democrats and liberals!” Charming!, I thought, vaguely recalling the UN definition of genocide. The truck pulled off a ramp to the right, and I was treated to a view of the driver resolutely holding his middle finger against the window.

I’m still somewhat puzzled over how exactly I earned the gesture. I guess he expected me to yield to his passing on the right, or maybe he didn’t like my bumper art – an old Ranked Choice Voting decal and a small US Marine crest in honor of my cousin. Either way, I was moved to imagine what percentage of the time this man can possibly drive without flipping the bird.

What type of worldview results in somebody having little respect for the law, yet becoming upset when they are not accommodated in inconveniencing (one might argue endangering) others? Surely not one which imagines depopulating America of liberals – the only people who will first jump to the conclusion, “I’m sure he was just having a bad day. Let’s see if he needs our help!”

Maybe She’s the President We Need

Maybe She’s the President We Need

I’m very glad I took the time to watch this short piece by Ezra Klein for VOX.

I’ve been avoiding election coverage for months now, totally disgusted by our national descent into a pit of shrieking raptors hungry for more negativity. I, for one, have had my fill. Klein’s video is a refreshing bit of non-sensationalist, intelligent journalism. It digs into Hillary Clinton’s strengths: listening and getting shit done. I’ve also recently been reading Deborah Tannen’s “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words“. You should too. Clinton may really be the President we need right now – an extremely hard-working bridge-builder who can, perhaps, ease the toxic polarization that is currently suffocating our democratic processes.

2008 Obama and 2016 Sanders were the presidents I wanted. They promised a progressive vision of our future, in which our national gifts could be shared more equally and America could remake herself as a responsible actor on the world stage. But perhaps what we need most at this moment is a temporary step back from ideological battles so we can focus on healing the system and rebuilding trust in our public institutions.

I’m incredibly tired of hearing my fellow Americans speak of our government as though it’s a useless entity, totally outside our control. Sharing frustrations with the status quo seemed like a great way to bond with people across the political aisle during primary season. I have a lot of frustrations to share – my whole life remains on hold as a result of our dysfunctional immigration system. At some point, though, I began to tire of the “every candidate sucks” memes. I’m a progressive. I believe we can and should do a lot better. But we also have a precious gift in our Constitution, national resources, and general level of institutional function.

I spent almost 6 years living in countries with really big problems. Economies so underdeveloped that everyday shopping was a surplus and salvage experience. Capital cities lacking reliable power or water infrastructure, still scarred by bullet and shell-holes from civil wars two decades past. Pay-to-play governments unable to materialize such basic necessities as garbage collection and presidential elections. Education systems failing everybody from the poor to the rich. Entire areas controlled by non-state actors. Women and children wandering the streets in rags.

You know what kept me safe, employed, and accommodated by the local bureaucrats? My American nationality.

Fuck that rude charlatan posing as a “successful businessman” and Republican presidential nominee. America Is Already Great! We take for granted a panoply of government services and high-functioning institutions that make us healthier and freer than the average humans on planet Earth. (This is not to say we are free of major, unacceptable failures to serve every citizen effectively.) I do fear that we’ve lost appreciation for our blessings to such a degree, that our national conversation has devolved into such a relentless bitching session, that we risk sliding backwards. We need to learn how to take a deep breath, listen to each other as human beings again, and wrestle control back from our lizard brains. That goes for everybody, and triple for politicians.

I do not think that Hillary Clinton is perfect. She will undoubtedly disappoint me with many of her policy positions. She has made mistakes and will surely make more as President. But I’d rather see progress through compromise than paralysis through partisanship. Hillary has already demonstrated her commitment to bipartisanship by inviting Republicans and Sanders supporters alike into a “Big Tent”. I could choose to feel angry at her for sharing the DNC stage with the likes of Michael Bloomberg, but instead I choose to celebrate her willingness and ability to engage with colleagues of all political persuasions.

This woman could be enjoying a luxurious retirement. Instead, she has fought her way through two brutal election seasons seeking a job that will place enormous stress and responsibility on her shoulders. I believe she is motivated to serve us, and that she has the skills to do so competently. When it comes to this year’s presidential election, which cannot come soon enough, I’m with the sane adult.

Why America doesn’t empathize with refugees

On #WorldRefugeeDay, I’d like to share a theory of mine about why so many Americans remain hostile to settling a number of refugees commensurate with our resources and global responsibility.

I think most Americans can’t truly empathize with refugees because we are so seldom restricted by borders. How can we understand the desperate need of a Syrian mother or Honduran child leaving everything behind if we can’t imagine ourselves in their shoes?

As an ex-expat, I know just how easy it is for an American citizen to travel the world. Typically, we hop on a plane, pay some money, and waltz right in. As of 2012, Americans could travel to 166 countries (of 196) without obtaining a visa first. Contrast that with the 25 countries (mostly remote island nations) to which my Syrian husband can freely travel.

In my personal experience, Americans have a poor sense of their relative privilege. Over the course of the past year’s struggle to bring my Syrian husband to the US, I have been asked by many people, “Can’t he just come here with you?”

To the knowledgeable, that may seem hopelessly naive. But it’s natural for people to assume others have the things they themselves take for granted. If a group of Americans felt unsafe in the USA, surely all but the very poor could legally find another place to live. Our education and reputation, and the fact that almost everybody speaks our mother tongue, would undoubtedly ease our transition abroad. Why would we ever need to burden other nations with “aid” and “resettlement”?

The very idea of Americans being forced out of our country is somewhat absurd. The USA is huge, diverse, and powerful. We enjoy strong rule of law and effective defense. Even if a natural or man-made catastrophe struck an entire state or region, we would have room to resettle within our own borders.

Each of our states can be compared with entire nations in terms of land areapopulation, even GDP. If you want to live somewhere sunnier, cooler, more conservative, more liberal, busier, more relaxed, better for your business, cheaper, more or less diverse, whatever… Just pack up and go! If your state government adopts laws you hate, you can vote with your feet. No visa, no checkpoints, no questions asked.

Most refugees are fleeing nations considerably smaller and more homogeneous than our own.

For all the Americans out there, I want to walk you through a thought experiment. I’m going to use my home state of Maine, which is in some ways an ideal example.

Imagine that each state in New England is a sovereign nation. Let’s assume that, like many regional clusters, people can travel visa-free and easily gain employment throughout. As long as peace prevails, this suits the states’ mutual interest just fine. Quite a lot of Maine youth travel to states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts seeking a better job market. Those states’ people enjoy cheap vacations in the rugged mountains and coast of Maine. Everybody’s happy.

Now imagine that civil war breaks out in Maine. (Perhaps some stubbornly independent Northerners have taken up arms against government agents attempting to create a national park in the Katahdin region!) New Hampshire revokes visa-free travel. Canada mobilizes military forces to quarantine the violence. Your sons and daughters working for Boston companies are suddenly unable to renew their Massachusetts visas, but you tell them to stay put. It’s just not safe at home, besides, there are even fewer jobs here now.

Things get worse, and you start to consider getting out of dodge. Hundreds of Portland residents die fleeing by boat in dangerous winter conditions. You finally shell out $3000 to a smuggler who promises safe passage to New Brunswick, but he leaves you to find your own way across the border from a remote trail head.

Can you even imagine?

I can. But that’s because I have Facebook chatted with friends as they rode rubber boats across the Mediterranean, hiked through Eastern Europe, and started new lives in Germany. I’ve watched my mother-in-law struggle to protect her children when all four are in separate places and varying states of danger. I’ve paid extortionate sums to the Lebanese government so my husband could travel with me to an uncertain future. When I see pictures of exhausted, hungry families trapped in camps, I cry. When I hear American politicians demonize these same people, I rage.

We are uniquely privileged in our ability to seek out greener pastures both at home and abroad. For most of the world, that freedom and convenience is inconceivable. We must work hard to truly appreciate our privilege and open our hearts to refugees.

This vote is personal.

A lot of people agree that this election sucks. On a typical day, I cannot scroll through Facebook for more than 15 seconds before some version of this meme pops up:

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In some ways, I sympathize with this feeling. However, I know better than to think my choice doesn’t matter.

Without going into my own political theories and leanings, I just want to share a very specific plea to those considering casting their vote for the “presumptive Republican nominee” (henceforth The Nominee, as I personally believe he has received more than enough publicity). We are all aware of The Nominee’s stated and confirmed claim that he would institute a “temporary ban” of Muslims entering the United States. I need you to understand what that really means.

My husband, Zac, is a Syrian exile. We met in Lebanon in November 2013, fell in love, and got married almost exactly a year ago. We are such an awesome match and an amazing team. Our marriage is based on shared passions (music, cultural pluralism, and social justice), blunt communication, and a willingness to tackle every challenge sent our way, together. Due to Zac’s nationality and a string of unfortunate circumstances, we have been separated for about 9 months of the past year. Our first year of marriage. Including our first anniversary.

Zac has spent that time laying low in Nepal and now Malaysia, two of the handful of countries willing to issue visa-on-arrival to Syrians.* Zac is now staying with incredibly generous friends of mine in Kuala Lumpur. His visa expires in about a month, and his passport expires in less than six months. This means he cannot legally stay or go anywhere, except for his home country where he would be A. forcibly conscripted into Assad’s murderous military forces, B. tortured or disappeared due to his association with Syrian opposition activists, or C. crucified by extremists whom he also refuses to endorse. That is, if he doesn’t die of starvation, untreated illness, or a bomb first.

Needless to say, I applied for his US green card as soon as I could.

I have been begging the US government to expedite Zac’s visa for the last several months. Anybody who has gone through it knows how expensive, difficult, and slow it is to bring a foreign spouse of any nationality to join them here. We are not alone. But if The Nominee is elected President of the United States, we could be.

The Nominee would ban my husband from entering the US, because his Syrian-issued passport and identity documents label him “Sunni Muslim”. Zac did not ask for those words to be printed there. The only time I’ve seen him step foot in a mosque was to ask about a particularly beautiful recording of the call to prayer. As an outspoken hip-hop artist whose civil rights have never been guaranteed, he has put himself at more risk speaking against Muslim extremists than The Nominee ever will.** Not that any of this should matter. Even if Zac was your average, moderately religious Syrian pursuing an apolitical career, he would still deserve to be protected and reunited with his wife. Bottom line: A blanket religious exclusion will leave my husband and others like him vulnerable, abandoned.

I honestly don’t know what we will do if The Nominee wins. All of our hard work and hopes will be instantly tossed away. Zac will become a refugee in the true sense of the word, and I will have to leave my home country to be with him. I don’t know where we will live, how we will provide for ourselves, what legal rights will be stripped from us.

All I can do is share our story and hope that my husband gets his visa before Inauguration Day. I ask that come November, you consider our future.***

 

 

* As of January 2016, Nepal no longer issues visa-on-arrival to Syrians.

** To be sure, Daesh and Al-Qaeda love The Nominee. He is a fantastic recruiting tool.

*** If you can’t stand the idea of voting for Hillary Clinton, check out Vote Pact for an ingenious alternative to “wasting your vote”!

Global perspective, local vision

Traveling has made me more reflective about my own society. I set out for Somaliland in 2010 with a hearty dose of “save the world” syndrome – I am a Tufts grad after all – and proceeded to do my small part to enhance the education of students in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Lebanon, and India. Inevitably, teaching (especially teaching social studies, which was my specialty) forces the teacher to engage with local social and political issues.

I flew to Somaliland eager to impart enlightened values and democratic skills. Upon hitting the classroom, the weight of my responsibility to the young people in my charge came crashing down. I had no right to imperialize their minds. I worked hard to present many viewpoints, give them space to guide classroom discussions, and train them to think critically and question all sources – even me. I feel good about my work at Abaarso Tech and LESBG, but I’ll always believe that my students would have been better served by a local teacher with the same training. (Of course, such people are largely nonexistent or more competitively employed in those places. I hope to see that change.)

The more time I spent trying to “save the world” abroad, the more I felt like it wasn’t my job. The seed of this idea implanted in me: I must apply myself to the problems of my own society. There are many reasons for this.

  • I want to shape my home community into something I feel proud of and happy in.
  • I have a responsibility to pay forward the staggering privileges I have enjoyed as an American citizen. As a member of the most powerful nation in the world, I must do my part to ensure we exercise our power responsibly.
  • Only in the context of my own society do I feel free to pursue my own vision of progressive change.

To all the people across the world who welcomed me into their communities and gave me a sense of purpose, THANK YOU. My resume says “Teacher” and “Instructor” but in reality, I learned more than I taught.

The challenge now is to find a sense of purpose here in the US. Several months in, I remain overwhelmingly occupied by making a living, begging for my husband’s visa paperwork to be expedited, and just staying sane. A lot of people say to me this is enough – more than enough – for somebody in my situation to handle. That’s a kind sentiment. But it’s not enough for me. I feel socially unmoored and totally lacking an outlet to contribute in a meaningful way.

Hopefully, admitting this in writing will light the fire I need under my butt to get me moving in the right direction!

Actual Heroes: Tiffany Anderson vs. child poverty

Every now and then, I like to highlight humans who have created real, positive change. Tiffany Anderson is one of those humans.

Anderson, Tiffany

Hero: Tiffany Anderson, Jennings School District Superintendant

Problem: Poor school performance in a low-income community

Solution: Fight poverty

Ms. Anderson raised her district’s state accreditation score from 57% to 81% in just three years by attacking the conditions holding poor students back from good school performance. NPR reports:

The school district of 3,000 students has taken unprecedented steps, like opening a food pantry to give away food, a shelter for homeless students and a health clinic.

Food, shelter, medical care. Simple. There are those, of course, who will argue that such projects are overreach for a school district to provide. But here’s the simple truth. Our kids can’t grow without these basics. An unbelievable proportion of American children lack them. But they do deserve them, and we as a community have a responsibility to provide them.

The more I learn about and experience in the fight against poverty and for high-quality education, the more I feel sure there are no shortcuts. We cannot cut corners and expect good results. But the beautiful flip side is that when you dedicate the time and resources, the results are transformative.

The Jennings School District boasts a 100% college and career-placement rate. That means every student leaves prepared to move on to higher education or a job. That is AMAZING! What a wonderful gift to the next generation, which will benefit from the earlier success of their parents and, I dare predict, require less aid than their parents did.

Good on Tiffany Anderson for making the tough choices necessary for long-term success. You are a true leader and an Actual Hero.

Homecoming

It’s been a few months since I found myself switching gears and preparing to settle into life in my home country. After 5 years of barely* interrupted expat life – the entirety of my independent adult existence – it’s been… a trip.

In some ways, I’m surrounded by familiarity. I’m living with my mom, in an apartment stuffed full of childhood artifacts. My two closest friends live well within reach. This is my national, cultural, climatic home. This country is home to the ideals of equality and individual liberty I hold dear.

I feel like I’ve returned to a war zone.

I’m struggling to learn the ropes of “making a living” in this place. Thankfully, I got lucky with a great temp job that could lead to a full-time position. But I feel like a fish out of water, cut off from the contacts I need to leverage my knowledge and experience. I see so many around me struggling to make ends meet or angry at their inability to get ahead.

I’m fighting what already feels like a battle to bring my husband home to live with me, while keeping him safe and fed. He can’t return to Syria, he has no right to work, Nepal will soon kick him out, and very few other countries are willing hosts to broke Syrians. Meanwhile, American politicians try to legislate barriers against his nationality and right-wing vigilantes carry out random acts of intimidation against people like him.

Maybe it’s the precise spot I’m in, or my over-consumption of news and social media. Maybe it’s transitioning away from jobs that provide housing and ready-made peer groups. But I feel more isolated and homeless than I ever did abroad. I feel more directly threatened by social and political developments. I feel less equipped to create a meaningful life here than I did in Africa or the Middle East, and yet a great sense of urgency to do so.

 

 

*Minus about nine months.