My father, Benjamin, was born in the midst of a rallying cry for independence: the Indonesian National Revolution had been going on for two years before his birth in 1947 on the island of Java. His family, of half-Indonesian, half-Dutch descent, fled to Holland when he was still a child, but their political fears weren’t to be assuaged in Europe either. His father—who had been interned at a work camp when the Japanese occupied Indonesia during World War II—feared Stalin’s resurgence, or another like-minded dictator, that could start a new war. Where could they find safety from political oppression? America, of course.
They arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the mid-fifties, where my dad’s siblings still live today. My dad had other plans though. Like many teenagers from poor families in small towns, he wanted an escape route. By the time he turned eighteen, the Vietnam War was in full swing. The door had appeared: he enlisted in the Army voluntarily, at a time when many other men his age were burning their draft cards in the streets.
His fellow soldiers nicknamed him B. Brain—Ben the Brain. He had only attended high school, but he was quick-witted and a natural leader. After his tour ended, he traveled around Europe, and when he returned to Pennsylvania he decided to enroll at Point Park College under the G.I. bill. Finding that he thrived in an academic environment, he moved to Washington state, where he attended Seattle University. A committed Catholic, he first thought he would become a Jesuit priest. He earned a master’s degree in theology and another in psychology, but before he could pursue the priesthood, he met my mother.
I think of my dad’s story as miraculous. He survived a revolution in Indonesia, political unrest in Europe, and war in Vietnam. He decided to pursue his education, which he valued so deeply, and then raised a daughter of his own with the same values that have guided him through life, and made him the determined, compassionate, free thinker that he is.
There are ways in which his story is banal. Refugees flee their homes, impoverished and afraid of the future, with disturbing regularity. They come to this country, like my father’s family did, to find safety from dictators, violence, starvation, and poverty. This tradition is woven into the fabric of America. It is so common that the most iconic monument in America, if not the world, was built to greet immigrants.
It’s impossible to speculate about what would have happened to my father if his family had never left Indonesia, or even Holland. They had suffered through persecution and exile in their first home. Even though my grandfather’s fears were unfounded—there was no second-coming of Stalin that would overtake Europe—my family felt at the time that their best chance lay in America.
The uniquely American promise for a chance at reinvention, a chance at peace, a change to be free from even the suggestion of fascism and occupation, brought them here. In 2017, that ideal has been shattered by a leader who is a daily threat to democracy. I didn’t know my grandfather, but I’m curious—afraid as he was of another power hungry dictator—what he would think of Trump. Where would he think people should flee to now, knowing that America is no longer free from the threats they are longing to escape?
Even if the current political climate in this country looks dire for those of us who are already citizens, the desire of immigrants seeking new lives here is undiminished. I don’t blame them: whatever is happening here does not compare to the unconscionable terror that people from places like Syria endure daily—where they don’t live, they just survive. Under such conditions, their potential is ignored, their talents subjugated, their humanity denied.
The house that I grew up in was a shrine to my father’s artwork. His photography hung on the walls and my childhood bedroom was home to his drawings and paintings: swollen green, pink, and purple petals bloomed on the branch of a tree where a singing bird rests; in the foreground a perfect red circle sinks below the horizon. I’m sure that these paintings would never have been created if he had gotten stuck in a repressive household in Holland. America gave him a chance at independence, the freedom to explore his identity, and a free education. With those tools, he could turn his attention inward, tend to his desires (which had sat dormant), strengthen his soul (which had been neglected), and finally prosper.
Shutting immigrants out sends the message that even the potential isn’t valuable to us. Denying immigrants the chance to pursue their dreams here erases art work and innovations and technology that could have been. It erases our future.
If we let fear dictate how we treat immigrants, we recreate the hostile conditions from which they are trying to escape, conditions that we supposedly agree are unlivable, that have taken the lives of children and spouses, that have destroyed the livelihoods of more than ten million people in Syria alone. These people deserve the same chance to start families and rebuild their lives as any other person, which should be obvious and a fact beyond question or reproach. Americans don’t have the right to deny any person that opportunity—that essential element of their humanity—because we are afraid.