Courage Isn’t a Closed Door

The day I reported aboard my first duty station in the Coast Guard, I pulled refugees out of the ocean. This was 1994. They were coming from Cuba on anything that could float. I was 19 and trying not to throw up or embarrass myself and failed on both counts. This began the most miserable year of my life: social ostracism, frequent seasickness, depression. But I never, ever once questioned the value or importance of the work we did. And for all my complaints about my shipmates and how they treated me, their professionalism, fairness, and humanity toward the people we pulled out of the water never wavered.

We turned away no one. There were days where the water was full of makeshift rafts as far as the eye could see. The only inhospitable thing we did was to pat people down as they came onto our boats. We received orders to destroy any household pets that they brought along on those rafts. The captain — a guy as right-wing as anyone I’ve ever met, who ranted about abortionists and Bill Clinton and whatever — didn’t even blink before dropping that order in the trash. I remember finding only one dog, but we held onto him until we found someone to take care of him.

Right and left wing meant nothing in the face of an ocean full of refugees on rafts. Even guys who treated me like crap still had the humanity to take care of people in need. It went on for a month, and this was after they’d spent all summer picking up refugees from Haiti while I was in boot camp.
Now it’s 2015, I’m 41, and I’m disgusted at how loudly so many people in my country — especially our so-called “leaders,” and particularly the “leaders” who paint themselves as strong guardians of freedom — say we shouldn’t take in refugees fleeing a horrific war where combatants on more than one side are in a race toward the very bottom. War is inherently bad, and even “good guys” do awful things, yet Da’esh and Assad have genuinely put their backs into it.
The only difference I see between the Cuban refugees I picked up and the people fleeing Syria is that the latter are fleeing something much worse. None of the other differences matter. Religion? Language? Doesn’t make a damn difference. Or at least it shouldn’t, but clearly for all too many Americans, those differences mean everything. Equality for all, as long as you’re just like me, I guess.
I’ve seen people say we shouldn’t take any refugees because a tiny handful might be dangerous. These are usually the same people who want to do literally nothing about the constant mass shootings in this country. Regardless of the fact that Islam and terrorism are NOT REMOTELY the same thing, we already live under the constant threat of being shot for no good reason by someone we don’t even know. We’ve accepted that as the price of “freedom,” right?
I’ve seen others say we should only take in the Christians — usually the same people who cry out “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. (And yes, for the record: Black Lives Matter. I’ll say it anytime.) So clearly “All Lives Matter” to them as long as those lives share the same faith. Screw the rest of them.
And I’ve seen more people ask why we should take in refugees when we already have so many homeless people in this country. Sometimes they even want to specify how many of these homeless people are veterans. Yet when it’s time to do something about that problem, they aren’t interested. “We should take care of our own first” is a meaningless argument when the people making it aren’t interested in taking care of our own, refugees or no. Don’t tell me refugees will take up millions of dollars better spent on Americans in need when you would never consider spending that money on those Americans in the first place.
In addition to my time in the Coast Guard, I’ve done some time as a teacher in public school classrooms. I’ve taught refugee kids. I mean no-shit refugees, kids who’ve spent much of their youth in UN camps and whose experiences and losses make the worst moments of my life look like a Disney comedy by comparison. I’ve taught in rooms full of multiple different accents and Somalis and Russians and Southern Asians and kids from Mexico and points further south. Hijabs everywhere. And you know what? They’re GREAT KIDS. They’re HAPPY TO BE HERE. They’re poor and often they’re behind the academic curve because they’re still working on language acquisition as high school students. And they’re a joy to work with, because they know how good they’ve got it just by being here.
One day I told a teacher how a kid in my class pulled me aside to warn me that some of the words in my vocabulary lesson were dirty words when spoken in Somali. Nothing scandalous, but he saved me from a lot of disruptive giggling from students. Nicest kid I’ve ever met. That teacher then told me he was one of the last of the Lost Boys of Sudan and that he’d seen his whole family murdered. Another guy, this one 17 and from Somalia, busted his ass on an essay about what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a computer programmer, and even being a low-level programmer would be wonderful, because where he grew up the most any boy could aspire to be was a gunman.
So I’ve got all that service in my past. I’ve got all this pride in my country. And today I see 26 elected governors and a whole field of presidential candidates in a pandering, pants-shitting panic about taking in refugees from a horrific war.
This, by the way, after we did so much to wreck the region and then abandoned the people who helped us on our way out. Syrian refugees? We couldn’t even be bothered to take in the interpreters and others who worked with us in Iraq.
What the hell is wrong with us?
There are only three reasons to turn these refugees away: bigotry, heartlessness, or cowardice. None of these are good reasons. I’m disgusted with how many people out there have decided to embrace all three.
You aren’t strong or united against terror when your policies and your rhetoric are based on fear.
(A quick reminder: I have comments set to require approval primarily to avoid spam. You’d think I’m in dire need of prescription meds from the sort of spam comments I get. I’ll publish comments, I just can’t promise to do it on a regular schedule.)

22 thoughts on “Courage Isn’t a Closed Door

  1. Ed

    “Land of the free, home of the brave” should come with an asterisk at this point, we’re so damned scared of everything. We need to hold onto our ideals when times are tough, and not just when things are easy!

  2. Matthew

    Well, I lack the direct life experience interacting with refugees, and would have defaulted to a lot more profanity, but I can’t disagree in any way.

    From my own experience in the army in my very limited time on active duty and somewhat lengthier time in the Reserves, my unit had zero Muslim or African immigrant deserters out of a total of five, zero Muslim or African immigrant criminals that I was required to pull an all night guard shift on after a full day’s work out of one, zero Muslim or African immigrant soldiers kicked out of the army on drug charges out of at least four, zero Muslim or African immigrant Sick Call Rangers who skated out of service on medical discharges out of a roster too many to count, zero Muslim or African immigrant roommates of mine that I had to physically restrain from picking a drunken fight with an NCO while already on assorted restrictions, zero Muslim or African immigrant home wreckers who fraternized with the company CO and got him relieved and the supply sergeant and got him demoted, zero Muslim or African immigrant soldiers who attempted to stiff a stripper on a multi hundred dollar tab, and zero Muslim or African immigrant individuals whose misdeeds were enshrined on the Article 15 wall of shame that literally ran out of room. Granted, we had three Muslim and two African Immigrant soldiers out of a complement of a whole lot more than that, and some of the above categories of reprehensible disgrace may have had individuals doubling or tripling up on the offenses against the UCMJ and or basic human decency.

    Oh, we also had zero Muslim or African immigrant soldiers come back pregnant from the unit in the sandbox that we were filling in for stateside. I guess if there is a lesson to be learned here it’s ‘don’t get assigned to possibly the worst unit in the Army Reserve’.

  3. Chris

    As a life long republican i think the citizens of this country forget that we are a country of immigrants. And always have been! Chris

  4. Will

    While courage may not be a closed door, I don’t believe that it should be a door where you don’t know who’s walking through the door. That is what we have right now. We have a door where people are coming up and we cannot verify they are who they say they are. From what I have seen, most news reports document the massive number of young men who are claiming refugee status. From what I understand, this is odd as the stereotypical refugee of past conflicts were either women or children. That seems to make logical sense to me. If that is true, then I wonder if it would change the optics of how many of those refugees may be dangerous. I wouldn’t say to take Christians only for a myriad of reasons. But I would be curious about the lack of call to take in the Christian refugees that were fleeing the same areas a little while ago. Whole villages were being wiped out, Christians being beheaded, searching for a refuge, but no mention on this blog about needing to take them in. I’m not sure you should have, but I just find it curious.

    The gun issue to me is a constitutional right. One that was put in place as our founding fathers saw what could happen when a government had all the power and the people had none, An armed populace prevents the government from morphing from a democracy to a dictatorship. Some would say that that would never happen and that nothing would change if we gave up all the guns. I would say that nobody knows for sure what would happen and why take that chance? I could probably find some stats that say that gun deaths vs gun ownership is very very small meaning that most people who own guns do not go on shooting rampages or something like that, but I know that every time I read a stat I can’t help but hear in my head the quote by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics!”

    1. Elliott Kay Post author

      Will, I never had anything to say about those Christian refugees from the Middle East because I never once saw anyone say we shouldn’t take them in.
      We absolutely do look into who these people are when they come in. Refugees already have to wait too damn long to get here. They go through four different Federal agencies. They are far, far more “screened” than the jackasses who get guns and shoot up schools and theaters in this country. Politicians (primarily and significantly Republicans) are calling for a change to this process because they want to look like they’re doing something, not because there’s an actual problem. You can tell this, because they haven’t pointed to a specific problem with the process, just a lot of generalities that say nothing at all. It’s all hot air and bullshit.

      As for the demographics of refugees: I don’t know the numbers of those fleeing the conflict zone, but if they’re predominantly young men, it’s almost certainly because they have the greatest opportunity for independent movement. Regardless, I do know that young men are the narrowest demographic of those that are being accepted into the US.

      As I said: shutting the door is an act of bigotry, heartlessness, or cowardice, or in many cases a blend of all three.

      1. Matthew

        There’s also the dual goals of having an able bodied family member who can establish a place to live and a means of support most easily for the rest of the family to follow, and trying to keep your younger male relatives from getting forcibly inducted into a war with no right side to fight on that I can easily determine.

      2. Eric Anderson

        I feel like I should call you out on acting surprised that a republican wouldn’t shoot a pet dog on sight. Are you so blinded by partisom hatred that you honestly believe this?

        1. Robert

          I think it was more that he was willing to disobey an order. I am assuming here (and we all know what they say about assuming), but I would guess that it was against his normal behavior to disobey an order simply because he might disagree with it.

        2. Elliott Kay Post author

          As Robert says, I’m more taken by the fact that he would disobey orders out of his sense of humanity than anything else. For all his faults and for all my political disagreements with him, the captain really cared about everyone coming to us for help, regardless of language or skin color or even species. It was our job to help anyone in need. We did it.

          And I’d never try to argue which political party loves dogs more than others.

    2. Jack

      Respectfully, your two statements contradict in practice.

      If your first statement of having a revolving door where we don’t know who are coming through is accepted as undesirable, then the same must apply to not having strict gun controls because we don’t really know who are buying guns and what are their mental status. In some instances we don’t even know who are buying guns at trade shows and conventions.

      If the statistics you say probably exist of gun deaths/and gun ownership being a tiny ratio should be considered as acceptable trade off for having the freedom to bare arms, then the same can be said about one or two refugees having questionable backgrounds and motives out of thousands.

      That is the problem with trying to justify turning away people who need help who might do some harm while not letting anyone do anything about guns that are readily available to people who might do some harm. You’re either against the possibility of being harmed or you’re willing to take the risk for another lofty goal.

      Lots of satirists have been using a quote from Jesus recently which reads: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” That’s from the book of Matthew. 25:35 I believe. The whole story ends a few lines later when he talked about the people who did nothing to help the least of us. It’s apt in this discussion, if self proclaiming Christians would only try and read the Bible for once.

  5. Brian Forsberg


    I konw that this is the internet, everyone is linking everything, I would like to link your blog to my facebook,book page, But I think I should ask, weird I know.

  6. Rehcra

    Good Intentions latest is up at Amazon. “Life In Shadows” I was waiting for a post but it’s been up for days so I figured might as well inform the other fans.

    PS great post by the way.

  7. Nick C

    Elliott & Fans,

    The current refugee situation contrasts previous refugee situations in many ways. First, the Director of the FBI admitted in Congress that the USA/UN does not have the database information that we have had in prior situations where most statistics are being used (example: our 10 year occupation in Iraq gave us a database to vet refugees. Not saying I agree with occupation). He flat out admitted we can not meet the same vetting standards as in the past.

    Two, statistics from the EU statistic producing body released numbers for Syrian refugees. These demographics contrast sharply with past US statistics everyone is using. There is a huge increase in military fighting age males, not women and children.

    Three, ISIS has openly admitted to embedding terrorists in refugee populations, and arrests out of many European countries have shown this to be true.

    I’m not saying we should deny anyone. But, we do have a problem and we do not have an apparatus for tracking or vetting refugees, which we need. We have the same problem with our Visa program.

    Our government is in denial and our politicians are power hungry and will say anything.

    Just wanted to say name calling ends up shutting down the discussion.

  8. Gary Birtch

    I have to generally agree with the author’s points of view.

    I think one aspect of perspective that we have lost is that sometimes you have to break an egg to make an omelet.

    What I mean by that is that within the framework of the US Constitution we have directly spelled out rights which lead to direct protections under the law.

    Attempting to ban a specifically ethnic or religious group is illegal. Even though it’s been done within the history of the United States.

    Invariably, we’re going to have to suck it up and live with the fact that a few bad actors are going to get into the US and will eventually commit a horrible crime. One of the most violent acts in the US was the Oklahoma City bombing, which 168 people dead and over 600 injured, by a native citizen of the US. However, I’d rather have that happen then end up being a country full of intolerant people afraid of dealing with the occasional issue, even if it’s a mass shooting, bombing, etc.

    It seems we’ve become a country of the afraid, as opposed to a country that looks at the facts and keeps its wits about it. Your chance of killed by an assault rifle is almost exactly 0.0001%, and by firearm in general: 0.0027%. …and the chance of being killed in a terrorist incident within the US is less than being killed by firearm – MUCH less. People who allow others to cause them fear allow the wrong people to get into power.

    The news media makes money, and political policy, by hyping up fear.
    The politicians (regardless of party) gain power by creating fear through creating issues we truly don’t have.
    We allow fear to cause us to take away the rights we are entitled to under the law.

    What the heck happen to the spirit of “love thy neighbor;” treating others as you would have them treat you? Winning people over through kindness?
    FWIW: My experiences in the USAF during the late 1980s pretty much mimic those of Elliot. The biggest bozos (jerks even) would give a complete stranger the shirt off their backs, almost without question. …and we were ready to turn the world to ash, but maybe that’s was gives you perspective.

  9. Dan Turissini

    If virtually every country with a sizable Muslim population wasn’t in flames right now, I’d probably agree with you. I’m not going to be ‘courageous’ with my children’s futures. I’m going to be extremely careful with them. Likewise I don’t expect my government to be courageous either. I expect it to zealously guard my freedom and my security. Bringing in hundreds of thousands of Muslims from one of the worst parts of the world with absolutely no way to verify their identities and past behaviors does not do that.

    And can we all please stop pretending that Islam doesn’t have a problem? Is it necessary that we dig through the Koran and find all the passages where Muslims are literally commanded to commit atrocities against unbelievers? Do we need to go there?

    1. Elliott Kay Post author

      Islam has no more of a problem in that regard than Christianity or Judaism. It’s not about the religion. It’s about people using religion as a justification for violence, and nobody has the market cornered on that.

      As for your children’s futures, they’re in far worse danger from any number of domestic threats that we seem to have already accepted. Singling out refugees who are fleeing violence as a threat that should be dealt with when we do nothing about greater dangers grown at home makes no sense.

      1. Dan Turissini

        Elliott I’ve heard that before, but you’re wrong. While horrible things have been done in the name of Christianity in the past, there is nothing in Christian doctrine, or the bible, that tells Christians to go and murder homosexuals, unbelievers, or subjugate ‘People of the Book’. When Christians committed atrocities in the name of the faith, they actually went against biblical teaching. That’s why they don’t do it anymore, and that’s why Muslims are incapable of stopping, because their faith actually specifically demands that they carry out those actions. Today, when Christians become radical, they’re annoying. When Muslims become radical, they’re deadly.

        I agree that there’s very little terrorism in the United States, and our Muslim population is, in my opinion, the best, and most educated, population of Muslims anywhere in the world. Is this something that we need to fix? Do we need to absorb a huge number of people, the vast majority of whom believe in Sharia Law and who have virtually no skills or education other than the fact that they’ve memorized the Koran? Have you seen how well that’s worked in Europe? Every day they’re having issues over there and there’s literally riots in the streets of Germany right now over the conduct of the refugees that they’ve brought in.

        There are real concerns over this and not just because I hate Muslims, or that I’m heartless, or that I’m a coward, or a combination of the three.

        We didn’t do anything when 40,000 Yazidis were stuck on a mountain getting slaughtered, or when Mosul got overrun and every Christian in the local population was killed or driven away, or when every Church in Baghdad got attacked and a Priest died blocking the door to his rectory so that a few could survive. No one seemed to care then. Why couldn’t we have saved THOSE people. The victims.

        Syrian Muslims are the backbone of ISIS. I can’t trust them, I don’t want them.

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