A story of bigotry, hate, and hope.
I ’ve always liked my neighbor. Ever since I moved to the neighborhood five years ago, we’ve had the ideal neighborly relationship. He’s given me rides to the airport. I’ve brought him soup when he was sick. We’ve exchanged homemade Christmas cookies around the holidays. Even so, we couldn’t disagree more when it comes to our politics and lifestyle. When he comes to my house, I bring him a homegrown kale smoothie sprinkled with fair trade cacao nibs. When I go over to his house, he offers me Rush Limbaugh tea (yes, there is such a thing).
Then Trump became president. Although my neighbor had accepted me, an Iranian-American, as his neighbor, he was fervently anti-immigration (at that point, he was unaware that I had come to the U.S. as a refugee). An imperceptible tension developed between us. Were we avoiding each other? I began wondering what would happen if Trump started a Muslim registry. What if people of Middle Eastern origin were taken to internment camps? Would my neighbor come to defend me as they put me in handcuffs? Or would he look over my direction, shake his head, and keep sweeping his porch?
Don’t Offer To Sign Up — Stop The Muslim Registry Before It Begins
Rather than touting future allyship, you must start the fight now.
I recalled living in post-revolution Iran, where we couldn’t trust our neighbors. I remembered how parents were imprisoned when their children repeated dinner conversations at school that in any way challenged the Iranian government — discussions about how the country was heading in the wrong direction, or how religion shouldn’t be the law of the land, or how the mullahs were a bunch of unqualified idiots. Every morning, my parents reminded me that I shouldn’t say anything about our home life to other children or teachers.
We watched on TV as a son cried and begged his mother for forgiveness. His mother had turned him in for treason because of his affiliation with the Mujaheddin, who had helped Khomeini in his rise to power, but became personae non gratae after the revolution. He was to be executed. She wouldn’t forgive him.
Our communities shattered under the weight of political differences and our “wrong” opinions bore a deadly price. At age 7, I became good at keeping secrets.
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But this is America, the land praised for its free speech. I wanted to talk to my neighbor about Trump and his travel ban — yet every time I went to his house, he was watching Fox News.
When a large number of Syrian refugees came to San Diego, I began volunteering with local organizations that help them. I also met Iraqi, Afghani, and Haitian refugees. I handed them clothes and supplies and hugged their children while imagining what each of them must have endured.
Then a single mother refugee asked for a dresser and some household supplies. I took a risk and asked my neighbor to help me deliver her the dresser I had just bought.
When we arrived at the apartment building, the woman came to greet us in the parking lot. She was small and pretty. Her 3-year-old was clinging to her leg. By all accounts, she looked like a typical young mother, but when she spoke, I detected slurring and a tremor in her voice. I recalled reading in her bio that her speech was affected by the trauma she had experienced.
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While the fate of refugees hangs in the balance of a fierce legal battle, I am compelled to reflect on my past.
As we struggled to maneuver the dresser out of the truck, refugee kids gathered around us. Then I heard a man’s voice offering to help. When I looked to respond, I saw that it was a neighbor who happened to be in the parking lot at the same time. He, too, was a refugee living in the apartment complex. He was missing a leg and on crutches. I glanced over at my neighbor, whose expression was one of discomfort. He waited in the car as I delivered the dresser and chatted with the refugees.
My neighbor and I drove home in silence. I wondered if his being amongst Middle Easterners who wore hijab and spoke in their native tongue reaffirmed his anti-immigration stance. As we were parting, he said, “Let me know if you need help with more deliveries. I’m happy to help anytime.” He had tears in his eyes.
I took a picture of us hugging and afterwards, I posted the photo on Facebook. I received many encouraging comments. Then a self-proclaimed anti-fascist asked, “Why are you hugging this hateful idiot when you should be confronting him?”
My neighbor and I drove home in silence.
I knew this man. We had conversed at parties, and had similar politics. On the one hand, I completely understood feeling hurt and betrayed by those who voted for Trump. Kids at my son’s school were asking their Mexican American classmates if they were going to be deported. I knew Iranians who were affected by the travel ban.
But I also know that my neighbor is not a hateful idiot — so I decided to interview the anti-fascist about his outlook. I hoped to show him that my neighbor was a decent man who was having a change of heart about the travel ban.
It was then that I actually encountered hate.
In the course of our email dialogue, the anti-fascist responded to every question I had with personal attacks, with comments like “Let’s cut out the bullshit political correctness” and “In my honest opinion you are so bent on being pc/by the book that you have lost sense of how people act.”
The anti-fascist said he confronts bigotry — but when pressed, he couldn’t produce any real life examples. He told me he respected Martin Luther King, so I sent him Loving Your Enemy, a sermon that begins, “First, in order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.” He said he knew that MLK didn’t change a single bigot’s mind and neither can anyone else. He couldn’t produce any proof for this claim. I presented him with three different links showing examples of how bigots had changed their minds: 1) KKK members giving up their uniforms due to their friendship with a black man named Daryl Davis, 2) John Lewis reuniting with his former racist attacker, and 3) A man who used to hate Muslims and now loves his Syrian Muslim neighbors.
But the anti-fascist didn’t budge. He told me I was “fucking crazy,” living in la la land.
I should say here that I understand and respect that many of the oppressed don’t see it as their job to help their oppressors see their humanity, and that it can be emotionally traumatic to try to do so.
But the way my anti-fascist friend treated me revealed the ways in which an echo chamber can become, in its own way, oppressive.
How did my friend advance the progressive cause by attacking me for choosing to reach out to my neighbor? What good can come from someone sabotaging another’s efforts by spewing venom from the comfort of their comment box? This isn’t liberal, inclusive, or productive; it’s lazy, disrespectful, and impotent.
How did my friend advance the progressive cause by attacking me for choosing to reach out to my neighbor?
Having a functional relationship with another person with whom we don’t agree is a sign of a healthy democratic process, and fair laws and a society that protects its people provide a platform for such relationships. As someone who understands all too well the consequences of a deeply fractured society, I’ve made the personal choice to engage.
At the same time, I acknowledge that intellectual debates are not enough. After all, I’ve had plenty of political arguments with my neighbor, but nothing changed until he saw the refugees’ plight.
When my neighbor came over a few days ago, he brought a dozen donuts and told me it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help the refugees. He said we’ve made a mess out of the Middle East. I was speechless.
He said that if they came to take me to an internment camp, he would defend me: “You love America. If they come to take you, that means that they don’t love America.”
We’re planning another supply-delivery trip to the refugees. I’m working on arranging for another Trump supporter to come along.