The Death of the American Heart

by Mary Pipher

Our country has a long history of religious tolerance and sanctuary for the downtrodden from all over the world. However, we also have a long, sad history of demonizing the other. This moment in time is in keeping with the worst of our nativist traditions. Currently, there are over 65 million displaced people globally, including four million Syrians. While most of these refugees are in crowded camps, some countries have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile, in America we have not been doing our share.

Under President Trump’s Executive Order, issued January 27, we would welcome no one. At the moment there is a stay on this order, however President Trump will soon issue a new order. This will mean family members will not be reunited and people whose lives are at risk will be abandoned in dangerous places. Already we are seeing massive deportations of asylum seekers and immigrant workers.

We seem to have no perspective on what we are doing. Refugees undergo more extreme vetting than do our current cabinet members. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, in America, refugees commit fewer crimes than do native-born Americans. Sanctuary cities actually have lower crime rates than cities without large immigrant and refugee populations.

Ironically, it seems as if the people most fearful of refugees are those who have never met any. Employers, neighbors and people who work with resettlement quickly develop great respect for the newcomers. Many times in the last couple of months, I have wondered if either President Trump or Steve Bannon actually knew any refugee families.

As a group, refugees are resilient and enterprising. They may be the last people in America who believe in the American dream. They value hard work and education and they teach their children respect for authority. They bring us new music, foods and traditions as well as important information about the world far beyond our borders.

Lincoln became an official refugee resettlement city in 1998. Last year we settled more refugees per capita than any city in America. Many were from the seven countries banned by Trump’s executive order. We are a thriving community with over 100 languages spoken in our schools. We are a city of Kurds, Bosnians, Vietnamese, Karen, Laotians, Yazidis, Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, Sudanese, Nigerians and many other cultural groups.

Until recently, most refugees were doing fine in our community. Our schools, our police, our public libraries, our newspaper and our medical systems have been welcoming institutions with translators at the ready. Churches and social service agencies have helped refugees find work and learn about America. Very few refugees experienced harassment.

Even after 9/11, when refugees were frightened that they would be targeted or deported, Lincolnites showed up to walk their children to school and to reassure them that they were safe in our city. At that time, many Americans were eager to know more about the Muslim religion and the Middle East. We wanted to understand the history and politics of a part of the world that seemed distant.

The Trump administration’s alarmist messages and stereotyping of Muslims has changed the atmosphere here. Every week brings new reports of harassment. Children are afraid to go to school because they are bullied on playgrounds. Women who cover their heads are treated rudely in public. Recently, two men interrupted a family eating at Denny’s to shout that they would soon be deported. Asylum-seekers have lost any hope of being accepted by our country and are risking frostbite to walk into Canada. Foreign students who had planned to stay after college now want to go home. We are no longer anyone’s shining city on the hill.

Last week, I had dinner with a couple who had escaped from Bosnia. Both of them were more frightened now than they had been during their civil war. The woman said, “Before the war, we were just like you. We lived in a prosperous civilized country with no strong divides. We thought our country was stable. But then politicians stoked hatred and division and soon people begin killing each other.”

They can see war coming to America. The hate speech, the demonizing of groups, and the ratcheting up of fear between people all feel familiar to them. These behaviors turned their peaceful democratic country into a madhouse where neighbors killed each other and everything was destroyed.

This couple came to America to be safe and now they do not feel safe. They are astonished that our great country could fall apart so quickly. They believed in American Exceptionalism. They felt we would always have a democracy that protected human rights. But they don’t believe that now.

The woman continued, “I wish we could divide the world into places for people who want peace and people who want war. My husband and I want to go where there is peace.” I speculated that almost everyone would want to go to that place. She said, “You would be surprised. More people than you think would choose war.” I shudder when I imagine what chilling experiences led this kind, loving woman to that point of view.

Because resettlement agencies are paid by the number of new arrivals, programs will disappear now that President Trump as announced that a maximum of 15,000 refugees will be admitted to the U.S before September 2017. In February, Lutheran Family Services, Nebraska’s main resettlement agency cut fifteen staff positions.

More people are refugees now than at any time in human history. Their refugee status says nothing about them except that they were unlucky in geography. However, the unwelcoming attitude that the United States shows to refugees says a great deal about us. All over the world, people can hear what we are signaling about our moral apathy.

Our current federal policies reflect the death of the American heart. Yet, we are a better country than our leadership suggests. Many of our citizens have hearts filled with love and welcome for refugees. Over eighty people showed up at a recent local workshop on how to help refugees. In February, 600 people came to a candlelight vigil, sponsored by Lutheran Family Services, to support our refugees.

If you are one of these Americans who wants to help, please consider sending money to MENA Hope, a center for Middle Eastern/North African refugees at 2617 Y St. 68503 and/or Lutheran Family Services Refugee Resettlement at 2301 O St. 68510.

Dr. Pipher is a clinical psychologist and the author of nine books, including Reviving Ophelia, which was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks. Her area of interest is how American culture influences the mental health of its people. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with her husband Jim. Her passions are her family, being outdoors, birds, books, and protecting her state’s environment.

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