My great-great-grandparents were Syrian refugees. America welcomed them.
I am a descendant of the kind of people that President Trump wants to keep out of the United States.
My ancestors were Christians from Eastern Lebanon, in what we think was part of the Province of Syria in the Ottoman Empire. In 1910 they migrated to the United States, and ended up in Kennebunk, Maine.
My family has forgotten why my great-great-grandparents left the Middle East, but history can probably answer that.
The Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East for more than 500 years, was disintegrating. In the 19th century, civil wars and ethnic conflicts had killed tens of thousands of Lebanese and Syrians, and left many more in poverty. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
In 1908, the Sultan in Istanbul was deposed in a coup, leaving a power vacuum from Egypt to Iraq. With the Ottoman authorities weakened, religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Lebanon began to fight with one another for control.
And that’s when my ancestors decided it was a good time to leave. They didn’t arrive with a visa or papers of any kind. They just showed up at America’s doorstep, and America took them in — no questions asked.
Their story is not so different from the stories of Syrian refugees today.
Once in Maine, where the majority of the population was white and of English or French descent, my family had to work hard and make sacrifices to fit in and succeed.
When they arrived, some French nun or clerk changed their legal name to “Nadeau” from whatever the original Arabic had been. They converted to Roman Catholicism. They sold goods out of a wagon around town, they worked in the shoe mill, they made illicit hooch during Prohibition. My Aunt Julia volunteered as a Navy nurse during World War II.
Like all immigrant families, they just wanted a better life for themselves and their children. And the United States accepted them as Americans.
I can already hear the counter-argument: “But those were different times! President Trump’s ban will keep America safe!”
You’re right, they were different times. They were more violent and dangerous than today.
In 1901, Leon Czolgosz — son of Polish immigrants — shot and killed President McKinley. And still we kept the door open for Poles.
In 1909, John F. Schrank — a German immigrant — shot President Theodore Roosevelt while he was giving a speech. (Roosevelt famously survived and finished the speech with a bleeding chest wound.) And still we kept the door open for Germans.
In 1919, dynamite bombs planted by “Anarchists” exploded in eight American cities. Andrea Salsedo — an Italian immigrant — was held partially responsible. And still we kept the door open for Italians.
We are a nation mostly of immigrants (without forgetting the Native Americans and First Nations people whose land our immigrant ancestors stole at gunpoint). Almost all of us have immigrant stories — even President Trump.
Without any rational basis to keep them out, we are duty-bound by our American identity to welcome immigrants and especially refugees, and to help them thrive so they can pursue the same American dream once afforded to our ancestors.
President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries isn’t about safety, it’s about scapegoating. It’s about bigotry. It’s irrational, it’s counterproductive, and it’s deeply un-American.