How Trump’s Executive Order Harms Refugees

I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers since 1991. I can’t even tell you how many I have had the privilege to represent, yet I believe that I have only encountered two cases of fraud in more than 20 years. I have never encountered even a single client with any links to terrorism. The refugees and asylum seekers who I have met have been fleeing for their lives – sometimes, in fact, from terrorists.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” signed on January 27, 2017 not only overreaches executive branch powers (under the plenary power doctrine, immigration policy is shared between the legislative and executive) but aspects of the order are both unconstitutional and violate our international legal obligations under the Refugee Convention (which we ratified in 1980). This at a time when there are more forcibly displaced persons (65+ million) than ever before in human history.

Here are some of the reasons why this Executive Order is bad policy that should not be enforced:

  •  Suspension of U.S. Refugee Admissions Programs (USRAP).
    • The order suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.  Why?  Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, refugee admissions were suspended for less than 3 months.  Refugees are perhaps the most thoroughly vetted individuals who enter the U.S.  Refugee processing often takes up to 36 months and includes background checks, biometrics, medical screenings, and interviews with several federal agencies. I’ve met many people stuck in limbo in refugee camps, waiting to be cleared to join immediate family members in the U.S.  The refugees impacted by this aspect of the order includes many children –  the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 51% of refugees are under the age of 18.
    • Under the order, exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis for national interest, if the person does not pose a risk, and the person is a religious minority facing religious persecution OR diplomats OR if the person is already in transit and denying admission would cause a hardship. It does not appear that clear instructions regarding implementation were conveyed to the Border & Customs Protection people who actually had to enforce the order this weekend, leading to chaos and lawsuits.
    • The order reduces the number of refugee admissions by more than half, to 50,000. The refugee admission number is set each year by the President, in consultation with Congress.  Historically, the number of admissions has fluctuated in response to the human rights crises in the world that produce refugee emergencies.  Frankly, the U.S had dropped pretty low in our history in refugee resettlement due to the overall lower number of refugees worldwide prior to the Syrian conflict. President Obama does not deserve accolades for many aspects of his immigration policy regarding refugees, particularly in regard to family detention and the “rocket docket” for Central American women and children fleeing violence.  But last year he finally did authorize an increase in the number of refugees the U.S would accept in response to the worldwide refugee crisis. The goal this fiscal year was to admit 110,000 refugees.  The government’s fiscal year began on October 1, so we have already admitted 29.895 as of January 20, 2017.  Under this new executive order, we will admit only about 20,000 additional refugees before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That means that 60,000 refugees who have already been vetted will remain in vulnerable situations.  —
    • Once resumed, the U.S. will prioritize the religious persecution claims of minority religious groups.  Purportedly, this is to prioritize the claims of persecution on account of Christian minorities but the fact is that Muslims are also a persecuted minority in countries such as India. What does this mean for them?
    • The order suspending USRAP for 120 days also directs Department of Homeland Security to determine how state and local jurisdictions can have greater involvement in determining placement resettlement in their district.  This aspect of the order has not received a lot of media coverage yet, but it would allow states and cities unprecedented authority to say that they will not resettle any Muslim refugees. Bills have already been introduced in states such as North Dakota and South Dakota to ban all resettlement unless approved by the state legislatures.
  • Ban on Syrian refugees. The order halts the processing and admission of all Syrian refugees. Indefinitely. Syria is one of the worst human rights crises on the planet. Over the past few years, millions of people have fled from both the forces of President Bashar al-Assad (supported by Russian airstrikes) and ISIS.  It is worth noting that the U.S. finally stepped up last year and accepted 10,000 refugees – but that number is far, far less than most Western countries.  To date, the majority of refugees resettled from Syria to the U.S. have been women and children. 
  • And then there’s the ban on entry of nationals of Muslim-Majority countries.
    • Both non-immigrants (tourist, student, etc.) and immigrants (including legal permanent residents – although Priebus later said that, actually we didn’t mean THEM and a “waiver” process was subsequently added) from seven countries (some friends, some foe) – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – are banned from entry for at least 90 days. The order also notes that other countries and immigration benefits may be added to the banned list later. Courts have already temporarily blocked the implementation of part of this order, the concern being the First Amendment Establishment Clause (which prohibits the government from preferring or disfavoring a religion) and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause.
    • But part of the order also calls for the exclusion of individuals who “would place violent ideologies over American law” or “who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different for their own..” That is incredibly vague and potentially discriminatory.  But the truth is that there has been enhanced screening for everyone coming from countries with high levels of terrorism since 9/11. We’re already doing the highest level of vetting that can be done. I can’t help but think that you and me and the American public are being played here – to the great loss of everyone from these 7 countries.
  • In-Person interviews for most nonimmigrant visas.  The order suspends the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP), which was primarily used by people who had been vetted already, were considered a low-security risk and were on renewable employment-based visas. The requirement for in-person interviews for nonimmigrant visa applications will create huge backlogs at embassies and consulates and slow down the process for anyone applying for a visa (including family members of legal immigrants, asylees and refugees).  Many of our asylum clients come to the U.S. on visitor or student visas and this processing backlog will thus prevent people like them from escaping persecution in their countries and leave them in vulnerable and insecure situations.
  • Screening of all for Immigration benefits.  While screening standards are already in place for identifying fraud etc.,  agencies are now directed to create a process to evaluate the person’s “likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society” and “ability to make contributions to the national interest”.  These are entirely new and subjective standards so it is not clear how anyone could even implement them.  More importantly, they are NOT statutory requirements for any immigration benefit (except a national interest visa). This is policy by fiat, going beyond Congressional authority. And did I mention the backlog we already have for processing any immigration matter?
  • Biometric Entry-Exit.  The order directs agencies to complete the implementation of the biometric entry-exit system that Congress mandated in 1996.  The Department of Homeland Security implemented biometric entry in 2006 but the exit system has proved logistically challenging.  Congress appropriated up to $1 billion in the FY2016 budget for implementing the biometric exit program but the Department of Homeland Security has noted that a comprehensive entry-exit system at all ports of entry will require additional resources.
The Executive Order signed on Friday, January 27, 2017 violates our Constitution, as well as our international obligations under the Refugee Convention to ensure that 1) refugees not returned to a place where they will be persecuted (non-refoulement), 2) there is an individualized determination of persecution on account of one of the 5 grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion – NOT just religion); and 3) refugees are not discriminated against.
This Executive Order is public policy based on myth instead of doing what is best for our country and our security. Every Department of Homeland Security professional that I have ever met has said that the problem is lack of resources rather than the need for new laws or regulations. Every refugee I know is a true American patriot, one who tears up when saluting the flag or appear at jury duty because they know – better than me – the true price of freedom.
Educate yourself (reading this post is a good start).  Call your Congressional, state and local representatives.  Volunteer to help refugees and asylum seekers in your hometown.  Remember that Einstein was a refugee – and so were the Pilgrims.  Providing a safe haven for those who are forced to flee persecution is a core American value.  This Executive Order will not make us safer but it will erode our moral standing as leader of the free world.
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Serious Concerns About Lack of Access to Counsel for Asylum Seekers

Child from Honduras

U.S. Senator Al Franken has called on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to ensure access to counsel for asylum seekers held in family detention centers. Joined by 18 Senate colleagues, Sen. Franken raises serious concerns regarding reports that U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is interfering with the ability of asylum-seeking mothers and children to access legal representation. Recently, individual volunteer attorneys, who had travelled to the privately-owned prison in Dilley, Texas where approximately 2000 Central American refugee women and children are detained,were barred from entering to provide  pro bono representation.

Access to counsel can be the difference between life and death for asylum seekers in the United States. Asylum seekers who have lawyers are more than three times as likely to be granted asylum as those who do not.  Having an attorney is “the single most important factor” affecting the outcome of the case. Yet individuals in immigration detention face the biggest challenge in obtaining legal representation.  The American Bar Association estimates that a whopping 84% of immigration detainees nationwide were unrepresented in their removal proceedings.

At the international level, The Advocates for Human Rights drew attention to the appalling lack of access to counsel for asylum seekers during the UN reviews for U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and the Convention Against Torture.  Most recently, The Advocates raised the continuing failure of the U.S. to recognize asylum seekers from Central America’s northern triangle in its statement to the UN Human Rights Council during a September 28 interactive dialogue on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights:

As an NGO that provides free legal services to asylum seekers in the United States, we would particularly like to draw attention to an issue that we see on a daily basis: the impact that violent transnational criminal gangs in Central America, fueled by profits from the trade in illegal drugs, have on the lives Central Americans, forcing thousands of women and children to flee and seek safety in the U.S.

Transnational gangs extort, threaten, and forcibly recruit people living in strategic drug trafficking corridors. States in the region are ill-equipped to deal with crimes by these gangs, leaving victims unprotected from serious harm, including torture, disappearance, sexual violence, and murder. And the violence continues to grow, as gangs seek to solidify their control over valuable drug trafficking routes.

For example, gang members threatened to kill one of our clients, who I’ll call “Teresa”, after her family could no longer afford to pay protection money for the family business. Armed gang members abducted her, threw her into a truck, and took her to the leader’s house, where he beat and raped her. Left with no choice but to flee, she sought asylum in the U.S.

Yet the U.S. violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers like Teresa by failing to recognize victims of transnational criminal gangs as refugees, even when such gangs operate as quasi-state actors that routinely torture, rape, and kill those who resist support or recruitment.

Asylum seekers face other violations, including arbitrary detention and prosecution for illegal entry. Mothers and their children are detained in difficult conditions pending preliminary credible fear determinations in two privately-owned prisons where attorneys have been denied access to clients and even summarily barred from the facilities.

The Advocates for Human Rights calls upon:

  • the Human Rights Council to include this issue in the discussion about the impact of the world drug problem on human rights;

  • the United Nations member States to ensure that their national drug policies consider the impact on the human rights of affected individuals and their countries; and

  • the U.S. to end family immigration detention and expedited removal procedures and to treat all asylum seekers in accordance with international standards.

See The Advocates’ volunteer Dr. Bill Lohman deliver the oral statement to the Human Rights Council:

In July, The Advocates launched a bilingual National Asylum Help Line to connect families released from U.S. immigration detention centers like the one in Dilley with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Help Line at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy, and Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt

Originally published at theadvocatespost.org on October 29, 2015.

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (10 – 16 January)

 Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam.  Photo Credit: Voice of America
Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam. Photo Credit: Voice of America

A roundup of some of the human rights news stories (both good and bad) that I am following this week.

TANZANIA declared a ban on witchcraft in an effort to halt deadly attacks on albinos. The move follows mounting pressure on the government to protect albinos, who lack pigment in their skin and hair, and whose body parts are used by witch doctors in so-called magic potions thought to bring power and wealth.  The U.N. human rights agency says more than 70 people with albinism have been killed for body parts in Tanzania since 2000. Minister for Home Affairs Mathias Chikawe said on January 13 that the government has formed a task force that will investigate killings and review court cases for accused attackers, some of whom have gone free. Ernest Kimayo, chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society, welcomed the government’s actions, saying it will improve life for his community.

Also in TANZANIA, some 800 school girls returned home on Monday, January 12 after escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) by spending three months hiding in safe houses.  FGM is traditionally carried out on girls between October and December. Run by charities and church organisations, the shelters offer protection (including police protection at some) to ensure the girls remain safe. FGM was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998 and carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, but is still regularly carried out, especially in northern and central regions of Tanzania.http://allafrica.com/stories/201501050530.html

CANADA:  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report on the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in British Columbia, finding it part of a “broader pattern” of violence and discrimination against aboriginal women   Aboriginal women are significantly over-represented as victims of homicide in Canada; The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reported that about 1,200 aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012.) The IACHR called on the Canadian government to institute a national inquiry into the issue and to develop a coordinated national response that addresses the root causes of the violence, including Canada’s history of colonization, inequality and economic and social marginalization.)

 fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.
A fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued its Mid-Year Trends 2014 report on global formed displacement in first six months of 2014.  Armed conflicts displaced an estimated 5.5 million people, with 1.4 million of those fleeing to other countries, says a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians have become the largest group of displaced people within UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans who held that position for three decades. 

NIGERIA:  International coverage of the tremendous human rights tragedy in Baga, Nigeria has finally picked up, but there has been less coverage of Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has expressed concern about what it called “escalating violence against children in northern Nigeria.”  The statement came after two explosions ripped through a market in northeastern Nigeria Sunday killing at least five people, including the two bombers. Twenty-one others were wounded.   The attacks were said to be carried out by two young girls. Sunday’s explosions came after a bomb strapped to a girl exploded in Maiduguri killing at least 19 people.  “We are seeing a new trend of using girls and women, and now of children, as suicide bombers. This is something that is new to this conflict. So, this trend is very worrying to us because this is something that is very difficult to find [a] solution to.”

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:  A spokesman for the Ugandan army announced that on January 14 Lord’s Resistance Army rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was handed over to Ugandan troops that are part of an African Union force in the Central African Republic.  He will be flown to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.   He was indicted by the ICC almost a decade ago, but only surrendered  last week and was taken into the custody of US special forces.   One issue that is sure to come up during the ICC trial: Ongwen is the only one among the five LRA indictees who was abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted into the LRA.

TAJIKISTAN:  Prominent human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was sentenced on January 13, 2015, to nine years in prison following what Human Rights Watch describes as a “politically motivated trial” that struck a blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.  A court in Dushanbe found Kudratov, who is also deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party, guilty on criminal charges of fraud and bribery. Kudratov is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of “religious extremism.”

EGYPT:  The acquittal in Egypt on January 12, 2015, of 26 men accused of “practicing debauchery” is a rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination against LGBTI persons. The men were arrested at a hammam or bathhouse in Cairo on December 7, 2014.  Government prosecutors have appealed the decision, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a nongovernmental group, reported, but authorities released all 26 men. It is the first time since 2011 that a trial court is known to have handed down a total acquittal in a “debauchery” case. Rights activists say 2014 was the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial.    Because there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, a decades’ old law criminalizing prostitution is often used in penalizing the gay community. The trial opened unusually quickly – only two weeks after the raid on the bathhouse — amidst biased media coverage that “convicted the defendants before they even set foot in court”.

Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis.  Retrieved from TheGuardian.com
Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis. Retrieved from TheGuardian.com

MEXICO: State prosecutors have detained the town of Medellín de Bravo’s entire police force following the disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz.    A group of nine armed men took Sánchez from his home earlier this month along with his computer, camera and telephones.  Sánchez publishes a local weekly La Union where he wrote about local government corruption and violent deaths, as well as publishing citizen complaints. Some of his journalism was aimed at Medellín de Bravo’s mayor, Omar Cruz.   Thirty-six members of the  police department were brought in to give statements in the investigation. 

In other news related to Mexico‘s serious problem with local corruption and disappearances and extrajudicial killing, the Mexican attorney general’s office this week obtained arrest warrants for kidnapping against the former mayor José Luis Abarca and 44 others implicated in the case of 43 students who went missing in September 2014 after being attacked by municipal police allegedly working with a local drug cartel.

GERMANY:  Dresden police have launched a murder investigation into the death of Eritrean refugee Khaled Idris Bahray.  On Tuesday morning, Bahray was found stabbed to death in an inner courtyard at the housing complex where he lived.  According to his flatmates, he had left the flat late the night before to go out to a shop but never returned.  Dresden has been making headlines recently for its anti-immigrant rallies, which, on the night of Bahray’s death, attracted a record number of 25,000 supporters. Tensions in the city have been high in the 12 weeks since the rallies began, with a reported increase in racist attacks. While the motive for Bahray’s killing and the identity of his killer remain unknown, a Swastiska was found daubed on the 2nd floor flat where Bahray lived with 7 other Eritrean refugees just three days before he was killed. It was accompanied by the threat, “We’ll get you all”.

CAMBODIA: Self-exiled Cambodian-American dissident Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 25 million riel ($6,250) under the charges of treason, obstructing electoral procedures in 2013 and inciting to overthrow Cambodia’s government related to a Facebook post prior to the 2013 election. Three other men (Serey Bunlong, Sen Someng and Oum Phirum) were each sentenced to six years in prison and fined 5 million riel ($1,230) for treason and obstructing electoral procedures after they reportedly distributed T-shirts with slogans admonishing citizens to abstain from voting in the last national election.

Finally, some brilliant teenagers in the UNITED STATES inspired me this week with their spoken word poem Somewhere In America. 

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to add other human rights news in the comments.

As always, feedback on this new weekly feature is appreciated!

How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

Regrets

A couple of days ago, my  daughter asked me, “Do you ever have regrets?”

She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair.  No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame.  The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore.  And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of  their young minds.

I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret?  In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.

“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.

After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”

“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll.  Maybe the message would sink in.

But for me,  a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.

What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?

The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context.  Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.  It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work.  I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them  had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss.  One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office.  Sometimes there was power for the ceiling  fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not.  Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war.  (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)

Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them.  Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams.   Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying.  Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.

There was one woman who has always stayed with me.  She was middle-aged, calm and collected.  She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact.  Clearly, she had relived the events many times over.  She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.

At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”

This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:

We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by.  They attacked a village there.  They didn’t see us, but we saw them.   They killed a lot of people.  We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us.  There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother.  The baby kept crying and crying and crying.  I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do?  I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long.  And then it stopped.  I knew that the baby had died.  In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place.  Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.

Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice.  Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby.  Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.

I knew I could not save that baby.  I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not.  Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.

I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.”  I can’t change the world.   I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret.  I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.

But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness.  I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me.  There is a value in simply listening,  and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

It may seem insignificant, but it is not.  And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.

So do it.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004
Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004

Nelson Mandela read Chinua Achebe when he was in prison and reportedly described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”  I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in college, three decades after it was written, required reading on a syllabus that only included one African author.  I read his other books later, as well as some of his essays.  The obituaries describe him as an African Literary Titan and a “towering man of letters”.  True words, but he was more than that.  Much has and will be written about Chinua Achebe as the writer that wrested writing about Africa – that vast and varied Africa, as if one writer could ever represent it – back from the West.

There is one poem by Chinua Achebe that has stayed with me for many years, not because it captures the global themes of colonialism or tradition v. Western values, but because it captures so perfectly the small moments of heartbreak and love that I myself have seen in the refugee camps I have visited in Sierra Leone and Ghana.  That Chinua Achebe could capture the small moments of human connection along with the global themes was a mark of his genius.  Upon reading the news of Chinua Achebe’s passing today, I read A Mother In A Refugee Camp again.  I share it now, my own way of  saying thank you, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

—Chinua Achebe

16 November 1930 – 22 March 2013

Talking To My Kids About Death

Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not  in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure.  Why not?”

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long.  As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as  the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°.  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well.  We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn’t know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her.  The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar.  For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling  me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me.  “My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.”   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said.  “That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It is sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.

So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon.


 

I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.