How to help an im­mi­grant who’s un­der at­tack

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Lev Golinkin Lev Golinkin is the au­thor of the mem­oir “A Back­pack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”

Idon’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 na­tive­born 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 the travel ban. 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 damn 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.

A friendly lo­cal merely en­gag­ing my fam­ily made our tor­men­tors slink away.

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