EDITOR’S NOTE: Foreign Compassion

By on January 31, 2017

The author’s father, Paul Vincent (center), at the age of 5 in Iraq.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When he was 10 years old, my father emigrated to the U.S. with his family from Tel Kaif, Iraq—among the seven countries included in President Trump’s immigration ban enacted Friday that halted this country’s refugee program and resulted in the detainment of green card holders in airports across the nation.

I watched with horror from my computer screen as chaos unfolded on Saturday thanks to this “shock event”—defined by Boston College history professor Heather Richardson as an event designed to divide people, those who might otherwise band together in the future to resist an even less palatable circumstance coming down the pipeline.

One of the pawns in Trump and Steve Bannon’s game was an Iraqi interpreter—among more than 100 other people—who had worked for the U.S. military for 10 years in war-torn Iraq. Although he possessed a special immigrant visa, Hameed Khalid Darweesh was met with handcuffs when he arrived at JFK airport Friday night.

After reading this news, I slammed my laptop shut and called my father.

“Tell me what it was like to come to this country as an immigrant.” The words startled me as they came out of my mouth. I realized that, in all these years I had never asked my father such an important question about his life. Indeed, growing up, I didn’t have many serious discussions with my dad concerning his childhood in Iraq. I think that’s because he always thought himself as American first, Iraqi second.

“Being an immigrant, you soon realize that you are being embraced by a country that will ultimately be your salvation, so you embrace the country right back,” he told me. “Most every member of my family felt like they were true Americans.

“And suddenly, we had these luxuries—running water, electricity, heat.”

But while his life may have been more comfortable, warmer, my dad didn’t speak the language, which meant that at his new American school he was sent back to the third grade. (He was supposed to be in sixth grade.) For him, this was a particular hardship.

“In the village [of Tel Kaif] I was considered smart and I did plenty of extracurricular activities,” my father told me. “But when I came here, it was like I couldn’t speak; I couldn’t communicate with anyone.”

To learn English, he said other students who took pity on my father offered him lessons; he had no formal instruction. In the meantime, he latched onto numbers. “Math is a universal thing, so I focused on that and tried to compete with other students,” my dad explained.

Teachers took note. In three months, school administrators moved him to the sixth grade, but that feeling of wanting to belong, to compete among his peers and feel like an equal never left my father.

At 13, while going to school, my dad began working at a grocery store to help support his family. “We all worked, everyone in my family, all of the kids,” he told me. His father, a teacher in Iraq, also found himself working at a grocery store in the US.

My dad juggled full-time work throughout his college career while he double majored in economics and accounting, and he continued to work during his first year in law school. This worried his instructors who warned him that he was reading at a 10th grade level. So he buried himself deeper in his books. In 1967, my father graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and soon started his own law firm, specializing in medical malpractice and personal injury.

One evening years later, married to my mother and with three children, my father sat warily in front of a television screen watching flashes of light illuminate a black sky. The United States had invaded Iraq and my father, from his American television, was watching his old country being bombed in the night by the country he loved. He decided he had to do something.

In the middle of a 45-year civil litigation career (he is still practicing today at 75), my father launched the nonprofit, Victims of War (VOW). He abandoned his practice for three years to gather and deliver aid to people suffering in Iraq, where the American government had imposed sanctions on the country that prevented civilians from receiving medicine and food during a time of war. He rallied the southeastern Michigan Arab community around the cause and lobbied state and federal lawmakers. He traveled to countries like South Africa and Jordan where he negotiated cheap medicines that he could import to Iraq. Every time he returned there, he said the people thanked him profusely. “Iraqi people loved Americans,” my dad remembered. “You didn’t hear one negative thing.”

Today, he attributes his lifelong counseling and advocacy—that has included pro bono work for people ranging from single mothers to my friends—to the experience of being an immigrant in America.

“I use my law practice to help people … when the need arose, I  [started VOW and] helped the community as a leader, and I felt lucky to go back to Iraq and do whatever I could to help people there, too.”

“When you’re an immigrant in America,” my father continued, “it changes you forever. Compassion is one of the things that grabs you and never lets go.”

So Mr. President, in a time when you discount or dehumanize that which doesn’t agree with your narrative—the paper of record, The New York Times, is “fake news”; Sen. Chuck Schumer cried “fake tears” Monday night as he spoke about your immigration ban to protesters outside the Supreme Court—I suspect my father’s America might seem fake to you too.

Yet there is no more an authentic American experience than that of an immigrant who embraces his home and enriches his community, but never forgets where he came from.  PJH

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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