Saturday, January 21, 2017

Notes from the Refugee Ball

Jason Dzubow, asylum lawyer

If you think the transition after retirement to "the next great thing" is huge, imagine what asylum seekers in the United States are facing. I got a glimpse of that challenge at an extraordinary event this week in Washington, D.C.: the Refugee Ball.
Among the 500 or so people attending were asylum seekers still in limbo as to their fate; those whose quest for a safe home in the United States had already been granted by the courts; immigration lawyers and those who support a compassionate immigration policy for victims of torture or persecution.  

As organizer Jason Dzubow, a prominent Washington asylum lawyer, put it in his address to the group:
"Critics of our humanitarian immigration policies will tell you that asylum is a gift, given to needy people because Americans are nice. And it's true that giving refuge to people fleeing persecution is the right thing to do.... But America did not create the asylum system to be nice.
"Since its beginning during the Cold War, asylum was about advancing our country's strategic interests. It was about demonstrating our moral superiority to our Soviet adversaries. We celebrated famous dissidents, athletes, and artists who defected to the West. Now the Soviet Union is gone, but asylum remains an essential tool of U.S. foreign policy.... 
"When we give asylum to interpreters who served with our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, we demonstrate our loyalty to those who served with us. When we grant asylum to women's rights advocates, we show our support for the cause of gender equality. When we support journalists, we show that we stand for free speech. And when we grant asylum to religious minorities, we reinforce our founding principle of Religious Freedom."
Artist Antonio Flores with Q-tip sketch made in detention

Among those I met at the event was Antonio Flores,  who came to the United States at the age of 15 – his mother has been here since she left him behind at age 4 in Honduras. With legal help from the University of Maryland, this aspiring artist, now 18, was out on bond from a detention center after being arrested as an undocumented, illegal immigrant.  He's never taken formal art lessons, but in detention learned that you can paint with the most meager of materials. Rub a colorful magazine (he used Food and Wine) with a deoderant stick, then touch the magazine with a Q-tip and you can get enough color to draw with the Q-tip.  

Michael Namalum,  who was in 2015 was granted asylum status here, would not talk about the torture he suffered in his home country of Azerbaijan, because, he said, children were present at the ball,  but he would not wish what he went through on his very worst enemy.
Coming to the United States, this human rights advocate faced more suffering after he was placed in a detention facility by ICE, he said. "I was insulted and humiliated in detention and my rights as a human being were outrageously violated. Well, isn't it a paradox? You come here, you seek protection and the next thing you know, you're sitting completely naked in a freezing room – like a refrigerator."

Nonetheless,  now he can speak out freely, and he is. His wish for America is that it will become a place where "no Arab guys would be kicked out from the plane for speaking Arabic, no hijabs would be taken down by force... no Hispanic immigrant would be attacked in Kentucky for taking a longer time at the cashier, no "N" words will be written on vandalized cars of African American people, no Nazi meetings will take place here in Washington, D.C.,  and no woman would be grabbed by her genitals against her consent.  That was my hope, that was my wish , and I'm still hopeful."

Mark Hatfield, president of HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest refugee agency in the world,"  founded in 1881, lamented the door that America slammed on immigration in 1921 and the many who perished in the decades after until our immigration policy was expanded.
He reminded those gathered of the many ways in which  refugees "made this country great." 

"America is a country that welcomes refugees, and i don't want an America that's any other way."


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