The Eyes of Muslim Children
The crowd at the Islamic Center was overflowing. Families with children had to park blocks away and walk on a cold Sunday afternoon in February. Many fathers wore suits and ties. Mothers were in dresses and boys and girls in proper clothes. Every seat was taken in the large community space in the basement below their mosque. People lined the walls two and three deep. They stood respectfully as a parade of speakers each took a three-minute turn at the microphone.
In front of the podium a young boy with glasses sat on the floor looking carefully at his watch and signaling with hand-lettered signs as the minutes ticked away. If a speaker talked too long, a young girl would politely stand next to the podium.
It was Super Bowl Sunday for some in the Chicagoland area, but those who came to the Islamic Center in Villa Park, especially the children, came for an event more historic than a football game.
In his first days in office, President Donald Trump had issued an executive order banning immigration and refugees from seven Muslim countries to the United States.
Muslim children just like those who were gathering for this meeting are being told they’re not welcome in America.
As I walked through the crowd, I saw these children’s faces and looked into their eyes. There were two little sisters wearing fluffy coats with leopard patterns dancing around their little brother. There was a smiling boy with a Cubs baseball hat. Young girls in their hijabs smiling and whispering to one another. Babies and teenagers, high school students and toddlers, all children who are part of a religion which President Trump has told America we cannot trust.
One boy caught my eye. He was about eleven years old and he was sitting in a wheelchair. He was proudly wearing his Cub Scouts uniform.
As soon as I saw that Cub Scout uniform, I remembered Norm Mineta. Norm, a Japanese-American Congressman, came to the floor of the U.S. House years ago to tell the story of his family gathering for the train ride from San Jose, California to the Japanese internment camp where they were forced to live during World War II. Norm’s Dad told his eleven year-old son to wear his Scout’s uniform with its American flag patch for the train ride. Norm never forgot that moment and never forgot his father’s tears.
I thought about them as I stood to speak.
And I thought about the impact of the Trump travel ban order on the Muslim children who are hearing words, not whispers, of hate and fear from the President of the United States.
I recalled that disgraceful chapter in our history when we turned away Jewish refugees during World War II, condemning so many of them to certain death in the Holocaust. I reminded the Muslim gathering that we resolved after that war to set an example for the world by accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Soviet Union and many other nations. It was not always popular, but I told them Presidents of both political parties proudly carried on this tradition until this moment in our history.
And I closed my speech with a direct message to the Muslim children at this gathering:
Be proud of your Muslim faith, a religion of peace, which is embraced by millions around the world.
Be proud you are Americans with a Constitution, which protects everyone’s freedom of religious belief.
Be proud of your family, which will always be your first line of strength in life.
Know that even in the darkest hours, when you hear hateful words, there are millions of Americans who stand by your side.
And know that at some time in your life, you will be called on to stand by others who face those same words of hate and scorn.
As I left the hall, the kids came forward with their moms and dads. I wanted to tell them how sad I was that they had to endure this political ordeal. But I also knew that this time of testing could make them stronger and even more committed to the true values of America.
Norm Mineta left the Japanese internment camp experience behind and went on to serve in the U.S. military. He was elected Mayor of San Jose and later its Representative in Congress. He also has the distinction of serving in the Cabinets of Presidents of both political parties. The story of our nation tells us that even in our darkest moments, when our fundamental values are at risk, we can overcome hate and fear.
No more than a century ago, the grandparents of many of the people now responsible for today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric faced the same discrimination from Americans who feared the new arrivals. Those new Americans came through that ordeal stronger — they helped build the country we know and love today — and America is stronger because of them.
President Trump may not realize it, but those children I saw that Sunday will overcome the hardships caused by his actions too. And America will be stronger because of them.