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!
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
and even then you carried the anthem under
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
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
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
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
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
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
or the insults are easier
than your child body
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
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
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