March 2017 Issue
March 01, 2017

'Tomorrow it could be you. Or me. Any of us. All of us.'

Author: by Richard Ognibene, Fairport EA member
Source: NYSUT United

The following is excerpted from a Facebook post written by Richard Ognibene, Fairport EA member and 2008 NYS Teacher of the Year. Read the full text on the blog at nysut.org.

I met today with T. and M., a Muslim refugee and a Mexican immigrant, respectively ... They are part of my extended family of former students.

T. is from Afghanistan. His family fled persecution from the Taliban. T. didn't learn English until he entered kindergarten; Farsi was spoken at home. His father has significant health issues that required T. to assume more family responsibilities. M. is from Mexico. He came to America because his father's job required the family to relocate. He was an adolescent when he arrived so the new language was tough to master. ...

When they came to America, T. and M. faced the normal challenges of immigrants: new language, new foods, new customs. They also dealt with the indignities, stereotypes and slurs immigrants and refugees always face. With slight variation, these were the same challenges, stereotypes and slurs my great-grandparents faced when they arrived from Italy in the early 20th century.

Despite these challenges T. and M. have thrived. They are active in myriad school activities and have been accepted into college. ... They are loved and respected by teachers and students.

When President Trump announced his intentions to build a wall along the Mexican border and to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries I wept. I know that for the foreseeable future, T. and M. will be looked at with suspicion, will be looked at as "other," will be looked at as less worthy, all because a political leader wants to score easy points with his base. ...

When one looks historically at efforts to dehumanize large groups of people — slavery, bigotry toward Irish and Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, the internment of Japanese during WWII, anti-Semitism in all of its ugly forms, prejudice toward LGBTQ people, etc. — those in favor of restrictions and bigotry always look bad in the end. ALWAYS. ...
The root ... is always the same: fear. Fear does bad things to us. It kills our empathy. There are many historic examples of this phenomenon, but I shall choose one that hits close to home.

I came out as a gay man at age 22 and I remember similarly awful, restrictive policies being proposed toward people with AIDS at that time. It was a new disease, it was scary beyond words, and some politicians were suggesting draconian measures — that we quarantine our brothers and sisters with AIDS, issue identity cards for those who were HIV positive, and — wait for it — use tattoos to identify said people. All of us in the gay community, regardless of health status, were viewed by less enlightened people with suspicion and distrust. ...
Today it's Mexicans or Muslims from select countries. These arbitrary restrictions seem perfectly reasonable to those who are neither. But tomorrow it could be you. Or me. Any of us. All of us. ...

Fifty years from now, perhaps sooner, people will look back at this time and ask one of two questions:

1. How did Americans let these horrible things occur?

2. How did Americans resist the fear and bigotry of its leader in order to reclaim its position as a beacon of hope in the world?

For T., M., and many others, we need to join hands, work hard, and make sure it's the latter.

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