‘When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?’
By Autumn Woodward • Guest Columnist
The Irish morning was cool. I’d tumbled over a stone wall into the park to go walking. Under two lines of ancient beech trees a peculiar, crooked figure dressed all in black was moving down the path. Overtaking it (it wasn’t moving fast), I peered sideways. The figure stopped.
Out of the wrinkled face encased in a black hoodie, a pair of warm and lively eyes beamed up at me. “Good morning.” The old woman and I spoke a moment, commenting on the beauty of the day for walking after the cold and wet. She said she didn’t walk so easy now. Hearing my American-accented English, she asked me where I was from. “I’m from the North Carolina mountains,” I answered.
“Welcome to Ireland, love,” she said, taking in my face, my whole being. I felt completely welcomed, even at home. The way she spoke was so wholehearted that my spirit felt embraced and my whole day was blessed by it. Giving me a spoken benediction then, she smiled and we parted. I moved easily forward, she moved with some difficulty and slowness, but with an undiminished grace and lightness of spirit.
Three weeks earlier, my husband Ty and I had been detained by Irish Immigration. We sat after an all-night flight in a little enclosed area, while the seven long lines we’d just stood through looked curiously at us, passed through, refilled. Janitors moved over the shining floor. Immigration officials had relieved us of our passports, laptops and phones. They were busy calling our contacts in Ireland, asking them how my husband and I had met, our occupations, other things. I changed a menstrual pad in a filthy bathroom with no trash can, off a blank, fluorescent hallway. A female official escorted me, we were not permitted to use regular facilities.
After over an hour of sitting, two agents came over, standing above us, to interrogate us again on questions we’d already answered about our vacation. “If you don’t answer, it’s straight home with you,” the elder official informed us. We were confused and nervous, because we’d already answered truthfully and been put in time out. Finally, after combing through our bank accounts online, they released us into morning in the Dublin Airport. We still don’t know why they chose to detain us out of hundreds of passengers, and it chewed at the edges of our minds for the first few days. Was it how we looked? Not having a full itinerary of hotels planned? Ty’s beard? My braid? Maybe our shoes.
Being held in limbo, at the mercy of foreign immigration, was not fun. It was stressful being questioned and not believed. It’s hard being treated like a criminal and a liar, even for an hour, even if you know you’ve done nothing wrong. Yet we were painfully aware of the strength and privilege of our U.S. passports, and that what we were going through was like being welcomed with a martini compared to U.S. immigration. I’ve had friends detained in the U.S. My friend Amel, a skilled human rights worker from Sudan and brilliant human being, was detained for 12 hours in a bright, fluorescent room in a New York airport on a routine trip. And that was in 2007. What Ty and I had wasn’t even a taste of the ugliness that is happening now at the borders of our own country.
Being welcomed by the old bent lady healed the hurt from the beginning of the trip.
What if we met each other with a similar curiosity and joy in the flavor of someone else’s English?
In the 1850s Irish people in the United states were reviled with intense hatred and prejudice. In rural Massachusetts, the manufacturing mills separated the American and Irish workers into different sections, due to American refusal to work alongside the Irish. Newspapers wrote about how the Irish were ugly, dirty and beastly, literally claiming that the immigrants were subhuman. Irish were accused of stealing work, even though they were doing the most physically straining, least desired jobs in society. In current times Ireland is a popular travel destination, and many Americans would be shocked that not so long ago the Irish were so intensely vilified in this country. The thing is, people utterly believed it. They believed the nature of these people was inferior, that they really embodied all these horrible things. Today this is clearly ludicrous. Americans of the 1800s seem quaint, horrid and naive in their views about race and ethnicity. The question is: Why don’t we learn?
How quaint and disturbing is the fear of Mexican people, immigrant people, Muslim people? How baseless the vile prejudice towards black people, Jewish people, Native American people?
But people are still willing to believe crazy things about each other. To believe asylum seekers are criminals. That immigrants are here to steal our jobs. Any number of the 1800’s beliefs about the Irish could be applied exactly to the racial fears and stereotypes of today’ preferred group of people to hate.
I think of that lady with the crooked body and warm eyes. Is it true that the country which houses our collective soul has a straight body with cold eyes? Or are we more? We must not be silent and stand by while troops are sent bristling with weapons to meet at the border with families with small children fleeing violence, seeking home when their homes are shattered. Truly we sin against our neighbors if we let this happen. What is left to defend if our country has no heart? If behind cold steel our eyes are cold?
We owe more to our home, to our hearts, than this. Can we be at home enough in ourselves not to fear the Other, to welcome the gifts and flavors the Other brings? Where is our humility? When will we be able to reach across the border and say, “Welcome home, love”?