Monday, April 20, 2009

Staying Afloat in the Melting Pot

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."
-Ernest Hemingway

When I hear a quote more than once in a week, I begin to think that it's a sign. Although this is most likely not true as I consider many other events to be "signs" as well: when a light turns red, it's a sign that I'm supposed to read CNN on my blackberry; when dinner burns, it's a sign that we're supposed to go to Olive Garden; when I couldn't find a parking space on campus, it was a sign that I wasn't supposed to be in class. I will admit, I could be abusing the theory of a "sign". But it's so much more esoteric than saying I find a way to justify everything. Anyway, having heard this quote by Hemingway twice in the past week, I took it as a sign that I was supposed to sit down and write about it. And it just so happens that it coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Columbine tragedy (although I really wish they would find a different word for the re-occurring date of a horrific event. "Anniversary" makes me think cake and a brass band...not speechless grief and departure) and it also coincides with me finishing Little Bee: A Novel, a book about Nigerian refugees seeking asylum in the United Kingdom.

So, let's begin with the book and end with reality because then I will have to close my laptop and get in the shower. Little Bee: A Novel was listed in the Kindle's top 20 New and Noteworthy books. When I read the review, it simply said "we cannot tell you about this book, but just know that you will be completely and pleasantly surprised." OK, I was hooked. I downloaded the free sample. When a book begins with the main character describing how much better her life would have been had she been born a British pound, you better believe I will be paying the full 10 U.S. dollars for the whole book. The chapters inspire with imagery like
"It was the month of May and there was warm sunshine dripping through the holes between the clouds, like the sky was a broken blue bowl and a child was trying to keep honey in it." I mean, how do you not fall under the spell of a book like that? The main character, Udo, who takes the name Little Bee when she escapes Nigeria during the oil wars and sneaks into the cargo hold of a ship bound for Britain, is intelligent, persistent, motivated, and sometimes obnoxiously optimistic. She is discovered on the ship and is immediately turned over to immigration upon arrival at the dock. For the next 2 years, she is held in a detention center outside of London. I know that after this glowing and mysteriously fragmented review, you will rush right out to buy the book, so I shall not ruin it for you. But let me just say that it may start to challenge the way you view immigrants. Having survived the detention center and learning the Queen's English, Little Bee finds herself face-to-face with a person of authority in London. She is questioning why she can't just mix in with all of the other nationalities that seem at home on London's streets and the man says "because you are a drain on resources. You don't belong here." Isn't that what we say everyday? As I write this, CNN is reviewing their in-depth interview with Janet Napolitano from yesterday's "State of the Union with John King." She is discussing border patrol and even tags it with the clever remark, "we want order at the border." Yes, everything sounds much more poetic when it rhymes. People seeking asylum in the United Kingdom are no different than people seeking asylum in the United States. Drug cartels aside, those who swim oceans just to set a foot on our sandy beaches must be doing so for a reason. They believe that there is a better life here. We have a really tall woman in a toga standing in a harbor that says so. And yet, our actions speak so much more loudly than our plaques. Acceptance, understanding, patience...these are all just words in the Queen's English - the refugees learn them but they are foreign to us.

And acceptance, tolerance, understanding - all words that may have saved had there been actions behind them. Columbine was a tragedy. As a Kentucky native, I know it was not the first; victims of the Paducah shooting still suffer. And as an American, I know it will not be the last. But we are a nation of many nationalities. The majority is the minority and will become more so in the future. Regardless of party, race, gender, and religious beliefs, we must remember that we are actually more alike than we are different. We can try to separate into "us" and "them", but yes even the gunmen are, in many ways, like their victims. What's most hearbreaking is that they never realized it. Here's a thought and a prayer for all those who have suffered at the hands of others. Your legacy is a call to action. It is our duty to respond.

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