“I’m an immigrant and a refugee, you fucking mook!!!”
Those were the last words I texted a childhood friend who was defending his decision to vote for Trump. This guy and I once smoked pot together, hit on girls together, and drank massive amounts of booze together, all growing up in south Brooklyn. We made all kinds of hopped up plans together. We vowed to change the world while under the influence. My buddy has since gotten married, had a couple kids, and moved to Florida.
His response to that text: “But you aren’t like those immigrants!”
We haven’t spoken since.
My family came to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, from Greece in 1970, when I was eighteen months old. We emigrated to escape a Greek dictatorship that made it too dangerous for my family to live there. Not many Americans seem to know this, but between the years of 1967 and 1974—with the full support of the United States—a right-wing military dictatorship took over Greece. Freedom of the press was squashed and expressing yourself got you arrested and/or shot. Political parties were dismantled. Military courts were established. Martial law became rule. Food became scarce. Running a business or getting a job was nigh impossible if you had the wrong opinions. They opened torture centers. They even put a fake king in place. In the cradle of democracy, they anointed a figurehead monarch.
Though many Greeks came here as refugees in those years, most Americans don’t look at us like other refugees because we are pale of skin and come from a primarily Christian country. Cultural assimilation has painted Greeks as your friendly souvlaki cart owner, the family that owns the diner, the funny loud people down the street, or the friends whose mom will always feed you. Between the idea of Greeks being some harmless movie clichés and my thick Brooklyn accent, I’ve been able to be a fly on the wall my whole life regarding the immigration/refugee story. Even people I have known for years have spouted thoughtless, racist bile about foreigners in front of me, forgetting I wasn’t born here.
The Bay Ridge neighborhood I grew up in was so bigoted that to this day when people ask me which part of Brooklyn I’m from, I say the corner of Hate and Willful Ignorance. The irony is that Bay Ridge was a very Irish neighborhood while I was growing up. We used to crash Irish Republican Army fundraisers for free beer—cops and firemen held these shindigs in school gyms and churches. And, naturally, the same fellas that ran charity events for Irish terrorist organizations were the same guys at the end of the bar, spitting acid at the influx of Muslim and Asian immigrants that came to Bay Ridge in later years.
At first glance, Bay Ridge wouldn’t knock you over with bigotry. The neighborhood has a reserved, close-to-the-vest vibe. It wasn’t like people were dropping n-bombs like they had a license on the corner of Bay Ridge Avenue, but it’s gotten worse in the emboldened xenophobe’s theme-park we now live in. Back when I was growing up, it used to be that before some horrible spitball-of-shame came careening out of some idiot’s mouth, he or she would at least look over both shoulders and lower their voice.
Here’s a typical conversation that happened to me at my favorite Bay Ridge bar a few months back. I ran into Arty, a retired blue-collar guy who’d been a regular there since I had tasted my first beer. Arty looked over his shoulder and said, “Hey, you seen this—Obama wants to open the borders and enforce Sangria law!”
He meant Sharia law but I let it go.
Arty lowered his voice to a hiss and said, “He’s just taking ’em all in from Syria. All these fucking sand n*&^^&#s. When Trump gets into office he’s going to burn this shit down.”
I reminded Arty that I’m an immigrant and a refugee, and asked if he felt that way about me. “Nah,” he said softly. “You’re okay. You’re Greek, you’re good people.”
This dynamic has pervaded my life.
In every sports league, there was some parent…
In every school, there was some teacher…
In every workplace, there was some co-worker…
In every relationship, there was some girlfriend’s relative who would say things like “Sometimes it’s reality, not racism, right? Those people hate us. Do you want another 9/11?”
But I wasn’t like “those” immigrants. No. I was “okay.”
I was on a date with a girl from my high school. She was into punk and metal so I figured she must be cool. We ran into some friends of mine who happened to be Egyptian and Lebanese. After exchanging hellos, we were off to our movie.
I thought nothing of it until my date asked me how I knew the “Ali Babas” back there. That’s what she and her friends called anyone they deemed even vaguely Middle Eastern looking. She then started on a tirade about how their families came here and glommed on welfare and they got free educations because you know, white people are oppressed, of course.
Both of these friends came from well-off, educated, middle-class families and I tried to explain this, but she said that’s how they get rich—by using food stamps and free education. I asked her if she minded that I was an immigrant and a refugee, and she thought about it a while.
She tilted her head and announced, “Yeah, but at least you’re Christian.” She said it like there actually were a few reasons to hate me, but she could look the other way because, well, Jesus.
She asked me what movie we were seeing.
“Aliens,” I said.
The most personally painful examples happen when I meet other Greeks who have morphed into rabid nativists. This is especially infuriating since our people in the homeland are at Ground Zero in the refugee relocation crisis. The last Greek I spoke to was a cab driver who said “The Trump, he throw out the terrorists, make the Merika strong eh?” His accent was thicker than my mom’s. He told me he came to America in the early 1970s to avoid the politics there. He was still a green card holder. I asked if he wasn’t worried that Trump may extend his ban to other resident aliens and deport him.
His answer was the one that should be tattooed on Trump voter’s foreheads. “Worry? Why? We are white!”
Greece was a tough place when my family left, but many Greeks stayed and flourished afterward. This is because they weren’t being bombed or gassed. There’s no doubt that some horribly inhumane things happened in Greece back then, but what America didn’t see was little dead Greek kids washing up on the shores.
My family got into the United States with little to no effort, and that was during 1970s in New York City, which was a mess on every level. In 2017 we have the most thorough vetting processes ever in place, but we are shutting down the borders?
When I first read that poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, I thought we were serious. I thought we, as Americans, meant that shit. I thought the harder you had it wherever you were from, the wider the doors would swing open for you. I thought maybe, in the 21st century, it was time to be humans first. But it’s not what I hear. If you can look at bloody screaming children at a bomb site and say “terrorist” before you say “help them” you’ve completely forgotten how you and yours first got here.
Even in Brooklyn, I just keep hearing about “those” immigrants.
Collages by Sarah Lutkenhaus