Refugees: a personal testimony

Refugees:  a personal testimony

I was going to save this particular subject for an upcoming anniversary of a proud moment and defining event in my own life.  However, because of all the media-facilitated scaremongering by political demagogues and aspiring Presidential candidates, I simply could no longer wait.  I think that what is being broadcast by the media sound chamber is as fundamentally wrong as it is offensively irritating.  Am I out of line to wish out loud for high profile people who seemingly know little about what they are spouting off on into live microphones to shut the hell up until they are briefed on a few basic facts?

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Riding the wave of hysteria created by the ISIS-claimed terror attack that killed so many people in Paris, France this month, local elected politicians along this most conservative stretch of Old Route 66 have not missed out on capitalizing on it.  Governor Mary Fallin wasted no time in tapping into the unpopularity among conservatives of President Obama’s immigration and refugee resettlement policy by calling on him to suspend it.  It would be nice though if certain members of the legislature could get the numbers right when it involves a community not their own.  Yes Representative Bennett, credibility matters, especially when you are democratically elected.

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Indeed, a little bit of research on the matter nets a lot of useful information.   Perhaps not the kind of information that validates a political narrative which has already concluded that these people are undesirable, dangerous and above all foreign (call me crazy but hey, they’ve been dispossessed and displaced from an Islamic majority nation).  However, knowing a few things about them actually makes them appear human.  As I have stated before on this blog, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  Yes, rounding up Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor ultimately placed the federal government in a position which was indefensible.  Now that very same idea is being promoted by a mayor in Virginia.  Can’t anyone in government learn anything from history?  It would be nice if we did not have to depend on comedians like John Oliver on HBO programs like Last Week Tonight to provide us with the best available primer of who these people are.

As the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis has become an ever growing problem for the nations of Europe and the Middle East, I have watched in stunned disappointment at how U.S. Congressional leadership has opted to deal with the issue.  In spite of having in place one of the most stringent vetting processes for refugees, last week the GOP-led House passed the American Safe Act which will effectively shut down resettlement of these people in the United States.  I know we are gearing up for a Presidential election year but stoking fear and scapegoating are bush league tactics that at the end of the day do far more harm than good to the nation.  For so many elected members of the conservative persuasion who not all that long ago proudly described their political stripe as “compassionate,” there appears to be a decided lack of humanity at their core.  After watching all this play out over the past two weeks I just have to ask this one dead serious question to anyone capable of rendering an honest answer……. Is this who we really are as Americans in 2015?

I posed the above query because my experience in dealing with refugees has been nothing but positive.  Thirty-five years ago next month, during my first enlistment in the U.S. Navy, the ship I was serving aboard encountered and recovered two boats and over 280 Boat People fleeing oppression from Communist Vietnam.  When we encountered these helpless souls in the ocean on a boat with no propulsion, food or water and saw they were at the mercy of pirates it was a no-brainer as to what we were going to do.  This story, when told in its entirety, will make anyone proud to be an American.  For me it represents a watershed moment in my life as it is the week I can honestly say I became an adult.  For me, it wasn’t enough that I was covering as the sole Ship’s Company Medical Department Representative due to my boss and senior department member going on emergency leave three weeks previous and his relief having yet to arrive.  We encountered and embarked a number of needy and some very sick people numbering almost as many as the crew.  I fortunately wrote down details of the ordeal in my personal journal and a few years ago excerpted that week from it and edited it for public consumption.  Here is the edited version:

Can Corpsman

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Humanitarian Service

 

Some years ago I set up a message board for my ship’s association.  Shortly thereafter I posted the above edited excerpt from my journal of the week of the Boat People rescue.  A few months later one of the former Boat People found me through that message board.  I am known him and that community as The First Contact.

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Once first contact was made with one former refugee, it seemed that they all started coming out of the woodwork.  Because these people were recovered by a U.S. flagged vessel, they were given priority status for immigration to the United States.  They all underwent a stringent vetting process and most eventually immigrated and settled in the U.S.  Those from the first boat with the final survivor count of 262 are now collectively known as Boat 262 Community.  Three years ago in the week of the anniversary of the event, that fellow who first contacted me organized a reunion in our former Captain’s hometown of Frederick, MD.  Some two dozen members of Boat 262 and their families were able to attend.  A few of the crew of my former ship attended as well as our Captain and we all met at the Hampton Inn in Frederick, MD.  I must say it was an impressive display of gratitude by those who we rescued all those years ago and so many of the follow-up stories were each nothing short of authentic examples of the proverbial American Dream.  Every single one of these former refugees has done nothing short of stellar.  To give you an idea of what I am talking about, the fellow who was once an English instructor at Saigon University and served as our main interpreter with the 262 group graduated from the University of Oklahoma the same year I did with a degree in computer science.

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 My former Captain managed to get all the old videotaped interviews from that recovery operation digitalized and they are now available on YouTube.  The fellow in the interview below was my old division leading petty officer.  He is from the South Bronx where he also used to be a Navy recruiter.

Boat 262: Our Journey to Freedom

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The First Contact

As indicated from all I have said above, my dealings with refugees both actual and former has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive.  I am tired of hearing refugees maligned simply because they have been dispossessed and displaced and I am tired of Americans, particularly those in our government, being afraid of them.  Legislation concerning them which is based on fear and ignorance is ultimately not going to serve the nation and needs to be reviewed, revised or preferably scrapped.  The America whose Constitution I affirmed an oath to support and defend as a member of the U.S. Navy is one which is all inclusive and open to such displaced individuals as those who know have become shining examples of naturalized American citizens.  Let it be known that when they benefitted from our immigration policy that they did not pull up the ladder for everyone else.  America’s strength is derived from its diversity.  Let that diversity be always celebrated, never denigrated.

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1 Comment

  1. robin
    Nov 28, 2015

    Thank you Stan. Honestly, I was conflicted two weeks ago and feeling ashamed for being conflicted. However, I committed to educate myself on the truth and within a few days, I was no longer conflicted. So I did exactly what you have written here, search for the truth and arm oneself with the right information. In the end, basic human rights must be upheld and humanity must prevail.

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  1. Looking back on a watershed moment | Reason Rest Stop - […] couple weeks ago I was compelled largely by media annoyance to post a detailed piece regarding my experience with refugees.  With due…