Editor’s column: Let’s not surrender our values to fear
I’ve been reminded by efforts to keep Syrian refugees out of our country that it was a Syrian medical resident at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit who, during a routine physical in 2010, flagged the swollen lymph node in my neck as possible cancer.
After his suspicion was confirmed, I heard horror stories about doctors telling people that their swollen lymph nodes probably were just from a cold and prescribing antibiotics. Some of those patients ended up being referred for a biopsy only after several months, allowing the disease to spread.
So the only Syrian I’ve been aware of encountering in my life was in the United States on a work visa and may have saved my life. He certainly made my treatment easier.
Donald Trump might be disappointed that I didn’t ask if the young doc if he was a card-carrying Muslim — I didn’t care — but I wanted to know more about his homeland. He told me Syria was beautiful, he was homesick and planned to return after finishing his residency.
This is one small example of how I feel enriched by experiencing Detroit’s diversity, including meeting many Muslims, Lebanese Christians and Chaldeans — Iraqi Christians. Similarly, the Roaring Fork Valley has the largest Latino population of anywhere I’ve lived. I am a better-rounded person for getting to know people with different backgrounds and experiences from my own.
Fear and bigotry come from not knowing. In my experience, meeting and talking with people as individuals, rather than lumping them into groups that I see as different from me, causes that fear or prejudice to melt away. This is how my attitude changed toward gay people, several of whom I count as good friends after being derisive about homosexuality in my teens and early adulthood.
And then there’s the black-white divide in America, as much as we’d like to deny that it exists.
I grew up in a nearly all-white town about the size of Glenwood Springs. I was taught and believed in equality for all, but theory and life are different. The only black people I talked with growing up were the two Scott brothers, who were barbers.
It was common in the last century for black people to work in such service jobs and to develop a persona that wouldn’t offend or threaten anyone. It was, I know now, a manifestation of our national racism and a way for them to feel safer.
It was different when I went to college and met black people with urban backgrounds at school and in my job at a gas station. Most of them were assertive and opinionated — just as I was, but unlike the Scott brothers. Some of the regulars at the gas station had an edge that made me uncomfortable at times, but it was a stoned white guy who pulled a gun on me once.
Many years later and with much more life experience, I took a job at the Detroit Free Press and decided to live downtown, which my wife and I ended up loving.
An early experience there drove home how our societal stereotypes can breed fear even if we believe we are beyond racism. I was nearing my building at the end of a run one morning when I saw, a long block away, two black guys standing in front of another apartment building, apparently arguing. One was waving his arms a bit, and both were yelling.
It is not imprudent in Detroit to assume that everyone is armed — actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad assumption anywhere in this country. My thinking ran along the lines of, geez, if this escalates, I could get hit by a stray bullet. Should I cross the street? If I do, will it seem racist? (Yes, this is self-centered, ridiculous thinking. I’m being embarrassingly honest to make a point.)
I stayed on the same side of the street. As I got nearer, the yelling seemed to get louder. Closer … closer. “Man, Tayshaun needs more minutes!” They were having a spirited discussion about the Pistons.
New to Detroit, I had overlaid my white fear and stereotypes of the inner city on two silhouettes first seen but not fully heard from a distance.
I carried fewer stereotypes about olive-skinned people from the Middle East, in part because I had an Iranian linguistics professor who taught us about the religious, ethnic and language diversity of the region at about the same time Shiite Muslim radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Other than the fairly small Iranian student population at my college, living in Detroit was the first time I regularly encountered Middle Easterners. I never felt the slightest bit threatened in numerous casual encounters and conversations with these folks, who were almost unfailingly polite.
ISIS and other terrorists want us to be afraid. They want us to bar Muslims — it helps their recruiting narrative that the West is at war with all of Islam. They hate the 3 million Syrian refugees because their flight gives lie to the propaganda that ISIS’s supposed caliphate is a haven for Muslims. What we see and fear from a distance, Syrian refugees have experienced in savage reality.
Rhetoric that Arab countries should take the refugees is hollow — Lebanon has taken 1 million, Jordan 600,000 and the United States 2,172 since 2012. France has vowed, despite the Paris attacks, to take 30,000 over the next two years while we debate taking 10,000 next year.
Those coming to the U.S. are among the most vetted refugees in history, waiting 18 months to two years for approval. According to a Guardian report, they “are among the most vulnerable in the Syrian conflict: many are women and their children, while others are religious minorities and victims of violence or torture.” Truly huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
In my very limited experience, a Syrian in America is more likely to save a life than take a life. U.S. terror attacks since 9/11 prove that the greater danger is the radicalization of people already here. If we surrender our values to fear, we don’t make ourselves safer; we make the terrorists’ job of winning converts easier.
Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering about that young doctor I met in Detroit. I hope he is safe.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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