“Immigration agents swoop into Portland courthouse, arrest Somali man,” read the headline in the Bangor Daily News yesterday afternoon. My heart skipped a beat. Images of my friends, neighbors and students flashed through my head as I tried to read the article without crying. Yes, I’d seen the news reports of ICE agents flexing unmitigated authority around the country, but Portland, our tiny Portland? What was the world coming to? Well, as my friend Marian wrote in a Facebook post sharing the news, “It’s official: Donald Trump’s slimy tentacles have come to Maine.”
Trump did his fair share trying to spread fear and hate in Maine while on the campaign trail. Indeed, since Maine gives two of its four electoral votes to the overall winner and one for each of the state’s two districts, Trump managed to grab an electoral vote from District Two, despite the state voting 47.9% in favor of Hillary Clinton. He made many of his baseless, fear mongering claims at rallies in Maine, including at a Portland rally last August:
“We have seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time and as Maine knows, a major destination for Somali refugees, right? Am I right? Well, they’re all talking about it — Maine, Somali refugees. We admit hundreds of thousands, you admit, into Maine and to other places in the United States, hundreds of thousands of refugees. And they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries anywhere in the world.”
Trump’s inability to spit out a complete sentence aside, his insinuations were all too clear. Most Somali refugees in Maine live in Portland and Lewiston. Portland, it should be noted, voted 76% in favor of Clinton, while Lewiston voted 53% in her favor. Both cities have seen a decrease in crime in recent years. Asked to confirm the validity of then-candidate Trump’s remarks, Lewiston’s Police Chief said, “We have not seen any increase in crime due to the Somali immigrants.” He went on to say that crime rates have dropped. According to the Portland Press Herald, the same is true in Portland: “Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said property and violent crime rates were down in his city as well. Sauschuck said property crime was down 14 and violent crime was down 24 percent compared to 2015.”
Why does it matter that Trump lied (again) and Portland and Lewiston still voted blue? Well, for one thing, it’s because fear is a hell of a lot harder to sell to people who know better. Residents of Portland and Lewiston know their Somali neighbors. Their children go to school together, play sports together, win championships together. This is not to say that either town is devoid of racist or xenophobic sentiment, but it is to say that children have a remarkable ability to learn not to be racist through friendships.
My high school students, for example, learn not to be afraid of difference. They learn that just because a white, Christian person is arrested for dealing heroin, it doesn’t mean all white Christians are heroin dealers. They learn that just because a Somali refugee is arrested for operating under the influence, not all Somali refugees are drunk drivers. They also learn that passing a US citizenship test is actually quite difficult, and many native-born high school graduates cannot pass the test. And they learn that being a refugee or asylum seeker is not a choice. They learn that people who come to Maine from Somalia and Sudan and Burundi and DRC and Syria didn’t do some Googling one morning and say, “I want to move there.” Instead, many of their friends and neighbors have fled extraordinarily dangerous situations, have lived through war, seen family members murdered and arrived in Maine seeking refuge.
The word refuge comes from the Latin refugium, ‘re’ meaning ‘back,’ ‘fugere’ meaning ‘to flee’ and ‘ium’ meaning ‘place for.’ When we live in safe places, we can create refuges for ourselves. When we live in dangerous places, we must flee toward a refuge, thus becoming a refugee. The word refugee comes from the past participle of the French réfugiere meaning to take refuge. In no usage or etymological history is choice a part of the matter.
But there are things we can choose, especially those of us lucky enough not to be born in a war zone. We can choose to offer refuge. We can choose how we spend our time, how we dedicate our lives, how we treat the humans around us.
For the past three years, I have spent a few hours a week volunteering in classrooms full of asylum seekers and refugees learning English at Portland Adult Education (PAE). I will tell anyone who is willing to listen that the accumulation of these hours amount to the honor of my life.
On any given night, you can walk through the halls and see hundreds of students from all over the world learning and improving their English. I am not a trained English language teacher, but I have learned a lot through my volunteering. The students are kind and hardworking. So many have endured more trauma and hardship than I could ever imagine and yet come in every night trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. Last year, when I was traveling to Tanzania to meet up with a friend, one of my students said, “Oh, Teacher, take a hat. The African sun is big for you.” Students have offered me food, friendship and love. I have met so many refugees who were doctors in their home country and now spend their nights cleaning hospitals. They work ten hours, take care of their children and still carve out time to come to English classes for 2.5 hours twice a week. I have worked with professors who are working at a laundromat and students for whom PAE is the first schooling they have ever attended.
These students’ lives are hard. They carry with them traumatic histories and arrive in Portland wanting a better, safer life, often with little to no support. They choose to come to class, to learn English, to fight for a better job so they can support their families. Coming from a warzone does not make a person dangerous. Being Muslim does not make a person dangerous. Being Somali or Syrian or Congolese does not make a person dangerous.
You know what is dangerous? Three ICE agents coming into a courthouse, pushing another human being against a wall and handcuffing him. That is dangerous. That is terrorizing. How many immigrants will now avoid the law rather than speaking up for their own defense or their neighbors’? How many will avoid seeking justice or bearing witness for fear their immigration status will be revoked?
What kind of country are we living in? How do I pray?
As the April rain falls outside my apartment window, where just last week we got a foot of snow, I have been thinking about Mary Oliver’s poem “Summer Day,” which she ends this way:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What do we plan to do? I’m not sure, exactly, but I do know we cannot sit idly by as the tentacles of fear lengthen, suffocating goodness and spreading hate. We have to pay attention. It’s obvious how Trump is choosing to spend his life; it’s not just campaign rhetoric anymore. We can choose a better way to spend our precious time. We can choose humanity. We can choose to be kind. We can live up to Lady Liberty and offer refuge.