“Why are you so intent on making the journey to the United States?,” I ask Abdullah, a 21 year-old Palestinian Syrian from Damascus. He responded, “I just want to go to America to change the mindset of Americans. They think all Arabs are terrorists. Here in Europe, they have more nuance. I need to come to America to change their minds about us, so they know that we are not all terrorists, that in fact we are seeking refuge FROM the terrorists.” The most troubling aspect of this exchange, was the searing truth of it. Abdullah became fatherless a couple of years ago after ISIL, known as “daesh,” killed his father in the Eastern part of Syria. Fleeing war, political, economic, and social crisis, and terrorism, he was one of many from all over the Middle East/Mashreq, Central Asia and Africa who landed on the shores of the Greek Island of Chios seeking asylum.
A couple of days ago, at the Souda refugee camp in Chios, Abdullah implored me to relay this message to my fellow Americans. I cannot shake the earnest belief in his voice, that resolute conviction, that Americans hearing his story would, could penetrate not only the decades long anti-Arab and anti-Muslim narratives dominating Western media, film and TV production; but also a systemic racism structurally designed to easily incorporate and cast Syrian refugees as the latest imagined threatening Other. Did he know how the white populist nationalist sentiments at the heart of Trumpism exacerbated this fear of the Other? Critical perhaps would have been if I explained to Abdullah the overarching work of white supremacy to maintain systems of oppression, like centuries of antiBlackness, chattel slavery, setter colonialism, and imperialism. Or maybe I should have translated a speech I gave to the Japanese American community on remembering Executive Order 9066, Japanese incarceration, six months ago into Arabic instead.
Last April, I was invited to deliver a speech at the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage addressing the intersectional dimensions of struggle against white supremacist oppression waged on Japanese, Muslim and Arab communities. I expanded the analysis to include other systems of oppression that are fundamental to white supremacy’s vitality. After the speech, I was urged by audience members to publish it online. I didn’t know if it was necessary to add another POV from a child of Syrian immigrants to the circulation of election 2016 think pieces. Abdullah’s story and plea pushed me to reconsider and share (although I was initially tempted to do so when the Trump campaign mailed my Syrian immigrant father a request for campaign donations):
How is Executive Order 9066 being remembered today? I would like to think if I was a 30-‘something Maytha in 1942, I would have vociferously spoken out against the incarceration of Japanese Americans. I would like to think when another group I am not a part of endures collective punishment; I would swiftly stand by their side for their justice. I would like to think I would act in full remembrance of history like the Los Angeles Japanese American community did in Little Tokyo after 9/11. They embraced us, Muslims and Arabs, stood by us, for our justice and said, never forget. We remember so we do not forget, so we don’t forget the evils that arise from xenophobia, racism and collective fear. Our fears will shift from one community to the next. It doesn’t end with eliminating xenophobia, discrimination, prejudice, and racism towards Muslims or the Arab community, or Japanese Americans. We must SHOUT never again for every community, especially those most vulnerable among us.
Instead of collective fear, in the memory of 1942, in memory of April 30, 2016, we MUST propose an ACTIVE collective love.
My father landed in Los Angeles from Aleppo, Syria in the US summer of 1968; three years after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, an overturn of immigration quotas set by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Black Americans sacrificing their lives to dismantle Jim Crow legislation is why immigrants like my father, a Syrian American, could enter the U.S. and begin a path towards naturalization. I am a product of the monumental policy changes initiated by the liberalizing affect of the passing of the Civil Rights Bills; a doctoral student teaching American youth to think critically about transnational American history, race, and migration. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and trumping up of hysteria around Syrian refugee asylum seekers speaks to larger issue of the violence cause by the system of white supremacy.
A few months ago, my students watched a short film centering narratives from Heart Mountain, a “relocation” site of Japanese incarceration in Wyoming. Today, we collectively stigmatize incarcerating Japanese Americans in camps during the remainder of WWII, as my students unequivocally did when they heard the stories of the incarcerated at Heart Mountain. Yet Roanoke, Virginia mayor David Bowers invoked Executive Order 9066, lauding FDR’s “foresight” to justify his rationale for banning Syrian refugees from his city. It is no wonder that one of the first communities to express solidarity with Muslim communities in the U.S. was the Japanese. WWII concentration revealed that the strategy of embodying a “model minority” positionality could not insulate you from white supremacy’s constantly transmuting racism. It was necessary to explicitly condemn xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. I never thought that U.S. political officials would trigger national memories around incarceration to justify enacting similar xenophobic laws seven decades later.
Trump’s call to ban Muslim migrants and travelers mirrors this era of racist restrictive immigration policies (1921-1965). It comes with bizarre historical irony that Trump would present fascist policy recommendations on the very day of the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Or maybe it wasn’t so ironic. Perhaps the declaration was strategically designed to stir xenophobic patriotism. Inciteful speech has a history of putting already vulnerable populations at increased risk to more violence. It is no surprise that prior to the gruesome massacre―-a terrorist attack―-at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, shooter Dylann Roof publically engaged with a Neo-Nazi website. This was the same site that immediately responded to the suggested ban by characterizing Trump as their “Ultimate Savior” and lauded his call to, “get those monkeys the hell out of our country now!” It is also no surprise to people in these marginalized, vulnerable populations that white supremacists by the Federal government’s count, carry out the most terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings even acknowledged this phenomenon when asked to speak to anxieties around Syrian refugees to the U.S. on MSNBC, “I am more fearful of large gatherings of white men that come into schools, theaters, and shoot people up, but we don’t isolate young white men on this issue.”
In a step to counter the rising tide of xenophobia, Los Angeles Country Board of Supervisors, my hometown, voted to issue a letter to the county’s congressional delegation and President Obama to welcome the resettlement of Syrian refugees fleeing violence and oppression. It behooves us, U.S. citizens, to interrogate and name white supremacist logic and to have an honest conversation about how ideologies of white supremacy put us at greater national security risk than vulnerable populations that seek to flee wars initiated by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
We must also ask, what is being done under the veil of terrorism. After 9/11 we quickly saw the passage of the Patriot Acts, an assault on all our civil liberties, and the opening of Guantanamo Bay camp―-where we send Muslim men to without trial. The expansion of the national security state has happened behind the veil of terrorism, sanctioned by our collective fears.
Eleven years ago, on the Day of Remembrance in 2005, third generation Japanese American Lilian Nakamo made this same link, “When Sept. 11 happened, I mourned the innocent lives that were lost. But I began to identify and sympathetize with the innocent Muslim Americans who immediately became victims of the same kind of stereotyping and scapegoating me faced 63 years ago, they too have become targets of suspicion, hate crimes, vandalism and violence, all in the name of patriotism and national security.” Nakamo continues, “Today there are renewed attacks on civil liberties in the name of the war on terrorism, legislation such as the Patriot Act and the governments willingness to arrest and charge innocent people contribute to an atmosphere that could lead to future internment camps.”
I have news for you. It’s happening today in different forms. Guantanamo, NDAA, Patriot Acts, NSA, massive surveillance on citizens and the Visa Restriction Program passed last December. This bill restricts travel to the U.S. for dual citizens with “national origins” in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Sudan—and anyone who has visited those countries in the last five years, for example, humanitarians, doctors, and journalists reporting on the frontlines.
I would like to think 30-something Arab Muslim Maytha, daughter of a Syrian migrant to the U.S., in 1942 would only stand in opposition to xenophobia for Japanese Americans, not only for Muslims and Arabs in 2016, but the next community targeted and terrorized. And I would also think that we can work together, in collective love, eradicating fear, to eliminate ANY POSSIBILITY of a next time. We are beautiful when we struggle together. Let us rejoice in our beauty and let us embrace collective love over fear.