There is a middle-aged man who works behind the prepared food counter at a local market. I do not know his name, but he has waited on me a couple of times, and both times, he went above and beyond what is required of him. The first time I shopped there this past autumn, he cooked a fresh batch of falafel for me, even though the self-serve take-home bar still had some falafel available on it. The next time, I was with my father, and he offered each of us samples of every pastry behind the counter as we considered which to buy.
Of course, everything was delicious, and we told him as much. He nodded and grinned broadly. “Syria is the king of pastries,” he replied in heavily accented English. “I am from Syria. A city in the northern part of Syria. Aleppo.”
Aleppo. The city I’d been seeing on the national news every night, the city of airstrikes, of crumbled buildings, of starving people, of dust-covered, bleeding, shell-shocked children.
“Do you still have family there?” I asked him quietly, and immediately, his grin vanished. “Yes,” he replied. “My brother and his family, cousins, aunts and uncles. I send them money when I can. I try to talk with them through Facebook, but I haven’t been able to reach them for two weeks. Eighty percent of the city is gone. Destroyed.” He pursed his lips and shrugged, almost apologetically, and didn’t say anything more.
It took me a few seconds to process what I’d just heard. Here was a friendly person dutifully going about his job selling sweets while half a world away, his family was, at the very least, in grave danger, and he had no way of knowing any more about them than that. And there I was, worrying about picking my son up from his after-school program on time and wondering rather haphazardly what I was going to cook for dinner that night. Realizing the difference in our situations was for me incredibly uncomfortable and profoundly moving. At that moment, I wasn’t wondering what religion he practiced or how long he had been in the country. I just wanted to hug him. Because the glass pastry counter prevented that, I told him how sorry I was about what was happening in Syria, and also that I would pray for the safety of his family.
This exchange was one of many I have had with people from other countries and ethnicities since I moved to New York nine years ago. I still remember vividly the Bangladeshi cab driver I once had. The middle child of nine children, had left his village at age 18 with little more than the clothing he was wearing. He went to Singapore to stay with an older brother, where he learned how to service printing presses. That skill got him a visa to enter the United States and work for a large pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. He had been hired to repair and maintain the equipment used to print labels on medicine bottles.
It was a job he’d held for 17 years, the driver told me – years during which he’d married his wife, gained permanent residency and citizenship, bought a home, and raised two sons, one of whom was currently in medical school — until he’d been laid off. The pharmaceutical company was transferring its printing division overseas, where labor was cheaper. So now, his wife’s income was supporting the family. He was in technical school training to be an electrician, and he drove a cab every Sunday to make whatever extra money he could to help out.
Within a 10-mile radius of my house, I have heard people speak, as best I can tell, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Arabic, German, and Hebrew, along with several other languages I couldn’t recognize. Our family’s lovely dentist is Nigerian. One of my favorite restaurants is owned by a Nepalese man whose cousin was killed in the 2015 Nepal earthquake. For a year afterward, he donated ten percent of the proceeds from his restaurant toward earthquake relief efforts. And I recently encountered a new cashier at the local ShopRite who was from Senegal. He was meticulous about the way he scanned and bagged groceries, he explained, because it was his first job in the United States and he wanted to do it well.
It is true that New York is incredibly diverse – even where I live, an hour outside Manhattan. The diversity was especially apparent to me just after I moved here because I grew up in small towns in the Midwest where the populations were and still are relatively homogeneous. (In fact, the community where I attended high school and which I consider my hometown – Paoli, Indiana – has recently been in the news because certain white supremacists have moved into town and are intent on building a residential and educational compound there. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of the population in Paoli is comprised of kind, decent people who are appalled by the presence of the white supremacists in their community. ) Soon, though, I noticed that whatever ethnic and cultural differences I had with people in my new locale, while interesting, seemed to fade into the background during our interactions.
What was more apparent and important was the humanity that emanated from the people I met. The hollow fear in the eyes of the Syrian man behind the pastry counter. The mischievous grin on the face of the cab driver as he told me how the Indian woman he would eventually marry ran away from her own family (who didn’t approve of her dating a Bangladeshi man) and took up residence with him after only two dates. The expressions of incredulity and hilarity of the waiter at the Nepalese restaurant who told my husband and me that the sustained, high-pitched sound we were hearing was not, in fact, an alarm from the local fire station but their recording of a Tibetan singing bowl.
I wish that the people in this country who are proponents of severely restricted immigration, and even those who are merely distrustful of people of different cultures and ethnicities, could spend some time in New York. This state is still a starting point for people new to this country, as it has been for hundreds of years. Established Americans (other than Native Americans) visiting New York might hear echoes of their own family histories in the waves of immigrants continuing to arrive and spread to every state. My own ancestors, according to a recent DNA analysis I had done, were mainly Italian, English, Welsh, Balkan, French, German, West African, and North African. (I am also one-half percent Japanese and about three percent Neanderthal, which was quite a shock to discover!) More than one of my great-grandparents entered the United States through Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay. But, if some of the Draconian immigration policies now being pushed to the forefront of national discussion had been in place during the past century, I and many other people I know might not be in this country today, or even alive at all.
My conversation with the Syrian man in the market reminded me how easy it is for established Americans to forget what is truly important, as well as just how alike they and immigrants are. The truth is, they both work hard to earn a living for themselves and their families. Both want better for their children than they have for themselves. Both seek and value liberty, justice, dignity, and safety. And beneath the exteriors – beneath their skin color, attire (religious or otherwise), and accent (or lack thereof), they — we — are all creatures of the same species.
We can celebrate our differences and our commonalities.
We can choose to accept, even welcome, each other and help each other.
But if we choose to isolate ourselves from the world, the United States as a whole will suffer.
We are all people. Our country is built on diversity, the hard work and generosity of existing residents, and the hard work and cultural contributions of immigrants. Historically, there has always been room and opportunity in the Unites States for newcomers from all backgrounds. I believe that that is still true. But now, the challenges we face as a nation are complicated by a heightened and dangerous climate of divisiveness and nationalism. Barring whole groups of people from emigrating to the United States, as some in our country now propose to do, would violate the ideals upon which our country was founded and risk unraveling the rich tapestry that has given rise to our society.
My hope for the New Year is that all Americans will better recognize the humanity and value in all people and break through the current climate of “otherness” and intolerance. Kindness and common decency are paramount. We are one nation, and we will rise or fall together.