City on a hill

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus
(poem on Statue of Liberty)

Everyone is talking about that photo. The photo of that impossibly tiny, little boy, lifeless on the beach. A dear friend of mine just commented that she wishes they’d not shown the photo. I understand that. It’s obscene to have that in your news feed.

But friends, that’s what happened..

A mother and father, in desperate circumstances, made the decision to to take their children, take the chance, face the dangerous journey, and try for a better, safer, freer life for their family. They started off a group of four. Only the father remains.

It is a heartbreaking photo- but here’s why I think we should look at it. That photo is what apathy looks like.

That is a photo of US.  Of what we have become as a world.  We are a world that turns its back on genocide and atrocities. Again.  Still.  Having learned nothing from World War II, when country after country closed its doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis.

How is it that a mere generation or two away from our forefathers being in that same position we have become so blindly self-centered, so “I’ve got mine, so you can go to hell” toward the immigrants and refugees of today? There but for having hit the geographical jackpot go ANY of us.

We revere the Pilgrims and are contemptuous of people on the exact same journey today. Good people, fleeing religious or political persecution, running away from poverty the likes of which we cannot conceive, seeking a new start in a new land. People who want a better life for their children. Who, in the EXACT HELL, are any of us to deny safe harbor? Who are we to withhold asylum? And DO NOT tell me we can’t afford it. We can afford whatever the hell we decide to care about. We always have.

There is a line from my favorite tv show of all time, The West Wing, that comes to mind. There was a story line with a genocide occurring in Africa, and the character of President Bartlet asks of speech writer Will Bailey, “Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?” Bailey replies, “I don’t know, sir, but it is.”

Are we prepared to say that we love our children more than these refugees do? I mean, are we really arrogant enough to think that? Think of how bad things would have to be for you to take your children on that kind of perilous journey. Think of the lengths we go to to protect our three year olds from every sharp corner, every electrical outlet, we check and re-check car seats, and playpens. How wretched would things need to be for you to embark on a dangerous trip with no guarantee of being welcomed ANYWHERE in the world?

Well, I’ve got news for you- he was our three year old.  They’re ALL our three year olds.

If we are going to sit by and do nothing, if we are going to denigrate people for seeking the same dream our forefathers sought, if we are going to cry poor while we spend billions on war, then we’d better be prepared to look at that photo of that baby on that beach and say,

You mattered less.

We’d better be able to look into that father’s eyes and say,

Your grief matters less than our comfort.

We’d better get comfortable with the idea of freedom as not an inalienable right, but a finite resource to be hoarded.

In Ursula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas the people live in a seemingly perfect society. Everyone is happy,  everyone has enough. Beauty is everywhere. There is a cost, though, to living such a life of ease. The people of Omelas must, from time to time, go down to a cellar where a small child is kept in abject misery, all the time. They must LOOK at the price of their Utopian lives. They must bear witness to the child’s pain.

Some cannot. Some determine the price is too high, and so they leave Omelas. They walk away.

Go, friends. GO. Look at that photo. Is that child’s life a fair exchange for our comfort? I don’t pretend to know what the answers are, but THAT is the question. Go. Look.

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

pitied

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange

savage

messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off your backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces.

i want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here

Home by Warsan Shire

14 Comments on “City on a hill

  1. Thank you for writing this. Both the national anthems of the USA and Canada contain words that speak of freedom, and the bravery spent to achieve that freedom. But like you say; everyone here on this side of the big pond, except for a small portion of true natives, came here from somewhere else. We would do well to remember that. Just that alone might stop our sense of entitlement and humble us a little to be more welcoming to those who are in need now. Let us not forget. I am a blessed and grateful Canadian.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So, what’s the plan? I’m in. I have lots of outrage and grief, and the empathy is so bitter I can barely breathe. Where do I aim it? Blasting money towards a hyperlink isn’t cutting it for me. I want to be His hands and feet; I want to feel someone’s breath on my face as they talk or scream. I need to touch human skin and sweat and tears, not a keyboard.
    What has this world become? I suppose it’s become what it’s always been, only now we have media. Anybody who ever felt a bomb strike shake the plaster out of their walls, or learned through a telegraph that their family in another country is dead in the war, felt this way. What has this world become? Nothing more than it always has been: Broken. Our hearts, our courage, our impotent, aimless outrage – all broken.
    When will we be furious enough to run from our SAFE home? Our home is not the mouth of a shark. Christ told us to run TOWARDS the mouth of the shark. I feel Him in my bones, and I can barely sit still.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is the fair, natural, next question- because our outrage is not enough, and unfortunately will likely be short lived. I don’t know what the plan is, friend. I don’t know what the plan is, but it is not enough to shake our fists at the sky, or at one another.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. Wow-that was a powerful poem. Great post – it touches on an important and often neglected subject. Who are we to judge? And, if we intend on judging, then we should be prepared to look at the ugly truths and injustices square in the face. This past weekend I watched the movie, “No Escape,” and found it hard to see the horror even from the safety of a theater. The first step to initiating change is to educate. Thank you for your powerful post.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I understand what you mean. I don’t get to watch many shows or movies that are not on Nick or Disney Jr now-a-days. I’ve just recently started taking some “me time” on Sunday mornings. I love watching movies. No Escape is a movie, currently out in theaters, about a business man(Owen Wilson) who gets a new job and relocates to Southeast Asia with his wife and 2 daughters .Shortly after arriving, they discover there is a political uprising within the country and many people (especially tourists) are being slaughtered. It was indeed a hard movie to watch on many levels.

        Like

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