I don’t need to tell people I’m an immigrant: My accent does it for me. Over the years, when Americans would hear me speak, they’d ask about my origins and what I thought of the United States. But since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House, I’ve gotten a new line of questioning: What can we do to protect and help immigrants and refugees in our towns and schools?
Everyone knows an ACLU lawyer isn’t going to parachute down from the heavens every time a local thug eggs a car or screams at a woman in a hijab. For newcomers, the difference between dignity and humiliation, impotence and security is often an American who’s willing to get involved.
I was 9 when my family fled Soviet Ukraine. We lived as refugees in Austria before finally coming to the U.S. I was young enough to assimilate quickly but old enough to understand that even in the land of immigrants, immigrants are not always welcome.
Some people take out their fears and frustrations on foreigners because it’s easy: Any native-born American, no matter his actual circumstances, enjoys a tremendous power advantage over someone who can’t speak English and whose citizenship status is uncertain. But the moment another fluent English speaker, another unquestioned American, enters the equation to help, that imbalance vanishes.
The simplest course of action is the most effective: Ignore the attacker and address the immigrant. Literally stand with him or her. Introduce yourself but resist the temptation to ask “Where are you from?” – it’s a touchy question, especially now, with a travel ban whose future is far from clear. In my experience, the mere act of a friendly local engaging my family was all that was needed to make a tormentor slink away.
It surprises Americans that newcomers don’t simply call the authorities when someone intimidates them or spray paints a slur on a garage door. Americans are taught from birth to assert their rights; most wouldn’t hesitate to speak to a rude employee’s supervisor or call the cops. Immigrants and refugees are generally wired to do the opposite.
Chances are, they’ve escaped from a region where avoiding people wearing badges was a matter of survival. This mindset lingers: My parents – my father is an engineer, my mother was a psychiatrist in Ukraine and became a security guard in the U.S. – have been here for two and a half decades, but they’re still terrified of even the most innocuous encounter with the police.
Instead of easing such fears, landing in America tends to burden newcomers with an additional reason to avoid entanglements with the authorities: The need to preserve a fragile existence in this country.
This doesn’t just apply just to those who are in the U.S. illegally: No matter how they got here, most immigrants are acutely aware that they aren’t Einsteins; they aren’t prized entertainers or computer geniuses or vital to U.S. national security. When green card holders and Iraqi interpreters were detained last week, Americans understood what immigrants have long known: Unless you get citizenship, your stay can be jeopardized at any moment. The immigrant’s overwhelming priority is avoiding attention at all costs.
And the language barrier is crippling. The term “barrier” isn’t strong enough: When you don’t speak English, it’s as if you’ve suffered a debilitating stroke, except instead of being rushed to the hospital, you have to look for a job. What you value about yourself – your smarts, humor, honesty, eloquence – requires language, but it’s gone. You could be a poet in Arabic; in English, you’re an idiot. Worse, when you can’t communicate your thoughts to those around you, they can assume you don’t have any in the first place. You disappear; you’re a non-person.
If you want to help erase that non-person status, acknowledge immigrants as individuals with a life, a history, opinions – something other than the product of a godforsaken country whose chief export is helpless creatures. Along with introducing yourself, simple yes-no questions work wonders, considering that people can understand far more than they can express.
Lastly, please don’t be offended if you don’t get a thank you. Immigrants aren’t Disney princesses – being stuck in a humiliating, even terrifying situation that requires a stranger to intervene on your behalf isn’t an occasion for rejoicing.
I didn’t thank the young woman who gave me a jacket in a Viennese shelter because I couldn’t comprehend that someone would hand out free clothing with no strings attached. I didn’t thank the hotel owner who helped persuade the Austrian police to release my mother and sister who were detained for peddling trinkets because I was terrified beyond words. I didn’t thank every sponsor who welcomed us to America because after six months of drifting through the world as a refugee, I was sick of being a charity case.
I didn’t thank them, but I didn’t forget them. Twenty-six years have gone by, and the honks and angry stares, threats and ridicule have faded like an old scar. But I can still see the people who helped us, vividly, brightly. I can see their faces from the brief interactions that enabled me and my family to materialize out the ghostly existence of statelessness and feel human. You don’t forget the good ones.
Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.