We should treat refugees with humanity and decency, as we are all the human race

Said Ahmed-Zaid
Said Ahmed-Zaid

On June 30, thousands gathered on the steps of the Idaho Capitol in Boise to voice their disapproval of the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" policy of family separation and detention. This rally was organized in solidarity with a “Families Belong Together" Day of Action held in many cities across the United States, and even abroad.

Several speakers took turns to tell their poignant life stories of seeking asylum in the United States by fleeing gang violence and domestic abuse, and giving details of their travel odysseys, only to reach the border and be denied access or, worse, be detained and separated from their children.

As a representative of the Islamic Center of Boise, which has welcomed many of the recent refugees from war-torn countries, I was asked to say a few words in support of this rally. I have reproduced below the integrality of my short speech for any reader who could not attend the rally:

“I am standing here with you today because I do not recognize the America that I used to know since I came here as a foreign student in 1975.

In the words of President Ronald Reagan, I used to think of America as a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.

Let me remind you that, except for Native Americans, everyone in this country is in one form or another an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.

This land has been renewed and its light rekindled with every new wave of immigrants, from the first pilgrims to the most recent waves of refugees and asylum seekers.

Where is our humanity when we see the haunting photograph of the body of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or the bodies of suffocated migrants in an abandoned truck in the United States?

No human deserves to die like an animal, even if they enter a country illegally.

For some countries, the only way to deal with this challenge is to repel migrants by force or to ensure that they remain someone else’s responsibility.

I do not subscribe to the idea that the future of our country can be built on ever-higher walls, or children dying at our doorstep, or separating them from their parents and locking them in detention centers.

As President Trump’s executive travel ban stranded people around the world and provoked condemnation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada took to social media to restate his country’s open-door policy. Mr. Trudeau wrote on Twitter: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”

Sadly, Canada now reminds me of the United States of America I used to know.

However, and before you get any ideas about moving to Canada, I want to remind you that you have the power to restore light and humanity to our shining city on the hill by voting this November and in November 2020!”

As I said in my speech, most people in the United States of America are descendants of immigrants. In fact, the same is true of people worldwide. I have a 1776 map of North Africa hanging on a wall in my office, and I like to show it off to students because it does not have the familiar borders that we see on modern maps. My visitors are usually shocked when I tell them that, only 300 years ago, people moved freely worldwide without ever encountering a customs checkpoint.

I recently learned a valuable lesson after I received the results of my DNA analysis. I used to proudly think that I was a pure Berber from North Africa, one of about 25 million individuals who still speak a 6,000-year-old language. I was astonished to find out that I had significant DNA contributions from North Africa, Southern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and even the Middle East.

These DNA results have taught me that we humans are all connected. And yet we prefer to talk in terms of us versus them. We like to demonize the “others” and pretend that we are somehow better than they are. Well, guess what? There are no others. We have only one planet and one human race. It is about time that we treated each other with the dignity and decency that any member of this human brotherhood deserves.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.