California Forum

What America gets when it takes in outsiders like me

Lida Azizi, left, and Yasimin Yasinzadah, with Team Afghanistan, laugh as they get a signature from Poriya Mizbani, of Team Iran, during the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge in Washington. Because of President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, the girls were initially barred from the country, and were nearly unable to compete. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Lida Azizi, left, and Yasimin Yasinzadah, with Team Afghanistan, laugh as they get a signature from Poriya Mizbani, of Team Iran, during the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge in Washington. Because of President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, the girls were initially barred from the country, and were nearly unable to compete. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) AP

My first Christmas in America: I tasted my first candy cane, pull-apart buns, and homemade pies with whipped cream that squirted from a can. Counting the stockings that lined the mantel, I was astonished to find that one was for me.

It was December 1978, and I had recently arrived from Iran without my parents to begin my junior year of high school in Michigan. My hosts immediately made me feel like a member of their family. In fact they kept me so busy that a month went by before homesickness struck like a knife through my heart. A lump lodged itself in my throat when I realized that the two people who loved me most were thousands of miles away. It was a snowy afternoon and what I saw outside the window was so new, so picturesque, it made me wish that they could see it, too.

The seasons turned. I wrote letter after letter to capture the wonder of the first this and the first that, but also to quiet the longing for home. For the next two years, my host family taught me how to navigate the routines and rhythms of this new world so that when my parents arrived, I had not lost my footing.

Any call against immigration or visitation is conduct unbecoming. It is beneath us to shut the door, turn the lights off, and pretend we’re not home when our brothers and sisters knock.

What has to happen for a mother and a father to send their child away? War, tyranny, slaughter, oppression and despotism force citizens to flee, to run away from zealots. To save me from the chaos of revolution, my parents put their faith in the goodness of others. People don’t willingly turn their backs on their homeland. In exile they are eager to express love for their now devastated hometowns.

Most, like my family, never get a chance to pack. No suitcases full of heirlooms and photos, only documents and diplomas to prove an identity. No agenda other than a desire to reunite with family, to get back to work, to plant a garden.

I watched my parents sit patiently through hours of careful vetting at the immigration office. I watched them quiz each other before their driving tests. Within a month my mother took the Board Exams for Registered Nurses and thereafter was a beloved nurse at Kaiser Hospital until she retired. Through the years she lined the windowsill with African violets and jasmine – a miniature version of the garden she had left behind.

My journey was easy. I did not traverse the sea on a rubber raft, I did not nearly drown, I was not assaulted, I did not spend years in a refugee camp waiting for asylum, I was not detained at the airport and deported. I was welcomed. I was expected to learn, to work, to contribute – all the things that give us a sense of belonging to a society. And society ought to be an extension of our family. When a family is fractured, everyone needs to step in because it’s in everyone’s interest to keep families together. To mend with needle and thread, like Doctors Without Borders.

Any call against immigration or visitation is conduct unbecoming. It is beneath us to shut the door, turn the lights off, and pretend we’re not home when our brothers and sisters knock.

What separates us is not color or faith. It is our expectation of life itself. The outsider expects suffering while we, in the warmth of our homes, expect happiness. Behind the migrant masses lie countless individual miseries and hopes. To deny hope, to deny American humanitarianism and hospitality is to breed fear and danger. It does not make us safe but validates the misconceptions of us.

Nearly four decades since that first Christmas, I carry an American passport, as dear as any document, with pride. Each time I return from a trip abroad and hear the immigration officer say “welcome home” to me, I feel a wave of gratitude so immense that I would give my life there and then for the United States, for my country. This is the opposite of exile. This is an allegiance fostered by every single person who embraced me until I was no longer an outsider.

I was moved by the images of young robotics teams from more than 150 countries who came together in Washington this month to participate in FIRST Global Challenge, the international robotics competition. “We want to take the best examples of humanity back to our country,” said Rodaba Noori, 16, a member of the Afghan girls’ robotics team, which was not the only one denied entry before the State Department relented and granted its members visas.

Because of sanctions, the team from Iran did not receive the shipment of their materials kit, yet via Skype, they cooperated with a team from a high school in Virginia who built the robot according to their blueprint, and handed it over when the Iranian students got to the competition. In a striking example of teamwork transcending politics, the American team flew the Iranian flag next to their own at their station.

Will our country keep the lights on and remain a beacon of hope for those living amid violence and chaos? The lasting image of the competition was not of those jubilant students, but of the teammates from Burundi, who disappeared when it ended. Two were seen crossing the Canadian border; police later reported that they were safe, but didn’t say where, or whether they would return home. Burundi, with its own share of political violence and civil unrest, has seen more than 350,000 people flee the country since 2015. “Maybe,” the Burundi team’s school director told reporters, “they wanted a better life.”

To ignore the symbolic meaning of belonging is to send the visitor home with a hostile message: They did not make me feel welcome. To illuminate one life – allowing a baby girl into the country for heart surgery, allowing a grandfather to reunite with his children, resettling a refugee in safety when all he’s ever known is suffering, staging international competitions, is to inspire a human network that promotes peace and forges friendship, one family at a time.

California author and chef Donia Bijan left her native Iran in 1978. Her debut novel, “The Last Days of Cafe Leila” (Algonquin) was published in April 2017. Contact her at doniabijan@gmail.com.

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