Letter to America

By Kathryn Miles

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Dear America,

I want to tell you a story.

Last month, lying in a Jordanian hotel bed, I was awakened by the adhan, the Islamic call to worship. It was not yet dawn. The previous day, I and four other U.S. writers had traveled to a humble university just shy of the Syrian border. We were there as cultural ambassadors, sent to build connection through writing and shared ideas. At the school, we were greeted with cardamom-laced coffee served in tiny plastic cups before being escorted to our classrooms. I met with journalism students, many of whom were refugees. They were shy and eager and proud of their work. One of them, a young man recently arrived from Syria, raised his hand. He said he wanted to write about what was happening in his homeland. He knew there were risks. That alone didn’t bother him. But he did have a problem—a conundrum he was hoping I could help solve. How, he asked, will I know which of my stories are worth dying for?

I didn’t have an answer for him in that moment. Hours later, lying in that hotel bed, thinking of the students and listening to the distant keening of the muezzin, I wasn’t much closer to having one. But what I did have was a surprising beatific peace—a joy in knowing that I was surrounded by piety and a commitment to service: a commitment so true that a student half my age, and already far braver than I will ever be, was willing to give his life for it. In that moment, the world felt small and tender and very, very sweet.

I continued to listen to the muezzin chant the adhan.

حَيَّ عَلَىٰ ٱلصَّلاة. Hasten to the prayer.

حَيَّ عَلَىٰ ٱلْفَلاَح. Hasten to real success.

And in the days and weeks following, I’ve returned to this call again and again.

Maybe the sound of the adhan is already familiar to you. Maybe you’ve heard it as you’ve walked down a street or as part of an exotic scene in a movie. If you’re like me, you’ve never given it much thought. But just for a few minutes, America, I want you to consider it. To hear this story of my experience and the stillness and love I found on the fifth floor of an international hotel. To think about what it means to live your ideals.

The adhan is about spiritual devotion, yes. But it’s about more than that, as well. The very word adhani means to listen. To understand.

It can be challenging to remember to do either, America. We have been pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, spurring young men to go west, building and doing and acting so long that I fear we’ve lost patience for listening and understanding.

More than ever, we need to get it back. And there is nothing less at stake here than the very core of our collective identity.

This past Friday, President Trump made good on his campaign promise to limit severely the number of Muslims—particularly Muslim refugees—entering this country. It is an unprecedented order and one that has already separated families, denied entry to scientists and scholars, and left visa-holders homeless, having sold all their possessions after receiving what they believed was ironclad permission from our country to resettle here. The order detained for hours elderly green card holders, translators for the U.S. military, and young survivors of war crimes.

In the coming weeks, attorneys and organizations like the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations will contest this order in court. They will argue, as David J. Bier did in The New York Times, that the order is illegal, that decades ago our country committed to never restricting entrance here based on a person’s nationality.

America, I urge you to listen to what they are saying and to understand what is at stake. I ask you to join in their fight not just because it is the right thing to do on behalf of talented and vulnerable people, but also because it is at the very core of who we are.

We are a nation of immigrants. We are also a generous nation—a nation that has always believed that real strength can only be found in equal parts solidarity and equanimity.

According to the United Nations, we have long since led the world in resettlement of vulnerable refugees. During the Irish famine, we accepted over a million individuals. When xenophobic protestors tried to block the arrival of famine ships, we told them no. Countless lives were saved as a result. Their descendants went on to become housekeepers and shop owners. One of them invented the automobile. Another became one of our most beloved presidents. In 1944, after six years of conflicted policy on Jewish immigrants, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, thereby saving thousands and thousands of persecuted European Jews, many of whom were resettled here to equal success. Since 1975, we’ve embraced over three million additional refugees. They have brought much to this country. In Maine, the state I call home, Somali refugees have revitalized depressed mill towns and inner cities. They serve on town councils and operate women’s shelters. Their kids attend Georgetown and Swarthmore.

This is the United States the rest of the world knows and admires. It’s the America praised by Ameen, one of my drivers in Jordan, who has worked extra jobs since the day his daughter was born so that she can study here. It’s the America that had students at that border university want to pose for selfies with visiting U.S. writers and to talk about pluralism and the free exchange of ideas.

It’s not too late to return to this best self, America.

Not a single country on Trump’s immigration ban, which currently targets Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, has produced a refugee who has committed terrorism on our soil. That alone is not a sufficient endorsement for future immigrants, I know. But here’s one: there are already strenuous international safety measures in place. The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, already vets each applicant. We have our own screening process, which includes five discrete background checks and four additional biometric checks, and an additional three in-person interviews. Statewide organizations like Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services and the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants assist in the resettling process and provide support—financial, physical, and psychological—when needed.

That system has worked. According to the Center for American Progress, Syrian refugees become homeowners and community contributors. In so many ways, they are already us.

It’s okay to be wary, America. It’s okay to want to be safe. But we also must listen. We must understand.

Just a few miles from that Jordanian university sits Za’taari, a UN refugee camp currently serving home to about 80,000 Syrians. The schools there operate on shifts so that all of the kids can get an education. Even some of the youngest pupils attend late at night, just so they can have their chance. Residents have constructed cisterns to conserve water and gardens to grow food. They’ve built a main drag where you can buy anything from native spices to phone cards to wedding dresses.

These are not terrorists. They are sons and daughters and grandmothers and grandfathers. They are engineers and entrepreneurs and artists and thinkers. They are that student, willing to die in the name of truth and the pursuit of freedom.

We need these refugees as much as they need us.

America, listen to their stories. Understand their plight. Hasten to do the right thing. For in our treatment of others lies our only hope for real success.

I believe in us. I want you to believe in us too.




Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles is the author of four books including Quakeland: A Tour of America’s Shakiest Places, forthcoming from Dutton. She serves as writer-in-resident at Green Mountain College. Follow her at www.kathrynmiles.net.

Header photo, aerial view of the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, courtesy U.S. Department of State and Wikipedia. Photo of Kathryn Miles by Ben Keller.


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