Last Saturday morning I boarded a plane at London’s Heathrow Airport. During the ten-hour flight to Miami, I got up several times to ease my back and stretch my legs, observing my fellow passengers with interest and curiosity. I chatted with a Brazilian woman who has lived for 20 years in Switzerland, on her way back to Manaus for a few weeks to help her mother through an operation. I observed the tender care with which a well-dressed woman my age assisted an elegant older lady I took to be her mother, both in neatly pinned headscarves. I enjoyed the mixture of different accents and language I overheard as I strolled around the cabin, flowing like the gentle murmuring of a brook. Here were passengers from India, from Asia, from Africa, from numerous European countries, of all ethnicities, nationalities, religions and colours. This is the melting-pot planet I love to live on.
That flight left at 9 am. If it had departed a few hours later, very likely some of those travellers would have been prevented from boarding or removed from the plane, as happened all over the world after Trump signed his executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria – from entering the United States. The ban applies even to valid visa holders, workers with green cards, dual nationals and legal residents as well as refugees who had gone through the arduous 2-year vetting process and had already been approved.
When I arrived and saw the news about Trump’s ban, I was deeply shocked. I could not stop thinking of the woman a few rows ahead of me, caring for her frail and delicate mother. From the way they tied their headscarves, I guessed they were from Syria. I had already wondered about their story, whether their apparent fragility had something to do with war: homes or husbands lost in the war, relatives lost, the lives they had before the war definitely gone forever. That war has affected everyone, I know from meeting many Syrians passing through Lesvos and Athens. I try to imagine the scenes if those women had been barred from the flight. What would we, the other passengers, have thought and felt, said and done? Would we have spoken up for them, would we have protested and wept? Or would we have been too afraid of drawing attention to ourselves?
Two months ago, in Salzburg, Austria, I took a taxi to the airport. My driver was a polite, handsome, very young man, with shining chestnut skin and close-cropped hair. He spoke excellent Austrian German, with a faint accent which made me ask if he had always lived here. He told me no, he had come here as a refugee. From South Sudan, that desolate wasteland racked by civil war since long before this boy was born, with the second highest score, after Somalia, on the global Index of Failed States.
‘When did you come?’ I asked him. ‘Four years ago,’ he told me. ‘Four years!’ I said to this young person, ‘you must have been a child then.’ ‘Yes, I was a child.’
‘How did you come?’ I asked. ‘Via Libya and Italy, or Turkey and Greece?’ ‘Turkey and Greece’, he told me, ‘Lesvos island’. ‘Lesvos!’ I said. ‘I am on Lesvos every summer and I always help the refugees. Maybe when you were passing through, I gave you a bottle of water, or a sandwich or a cookie or a hat.’ We both laughed at the thought that we might have crossed paths before. ‘You, or someone like you!’ he said, smiling. ‘Yes, and you, or someone like you too.’
We continued to talk as we drove through the picturesque streets of Salzburg. With his permission, I asked about the details of the journey. How long it took (four months), if he had family with him (no), if he had family waiting for him in Europe (no), if his parents were still alive (yes). And are they still in South Sudan? No, he explained, they had been in a refugee camp for years but in September they managed to get out and go to Yemen. ‘To Yemen? But things are so bad there right now. It’s just as bad as Sudan!’ ‘Yes, that’s right, so after two months they had to go back’. Back to the drought-ridden, famine-struck camps in South Sudan, with one and half million other displaced people staring genocide in the face.
Saïd, as he was called, told me more about his life in Austria, and about his journey as a refugee – a terrible and terrifying ordeal. ‘But we were the lucky ones’, he insisted, ‘it is much more difficult for people coming now.’ When we reached the airport I paid the fare, then gave him fifty euros. ‘For you,’ I said, ‘to help your family.’ Tears sprang to Saïd’s eyes; with the heart-breakingly gentle manner, exquisite courtesy and innate dignity characteristic of all the refugees I have encountered, he placed his hand on his heart and bowed. My suitcase has wheels, and weighed 23 kilos, but he lifted it up in his arms and carried it into the terminal. We shook hands and I told him, “Saïd, I’m glad you made it. I’m glad you’re here. You are welcome in Europe. As a European, I welcome you.”
A banner at JKF airport in New York in the protests that erupted immediately in response to the ban, reads: ‘We WILL love and protect each other.’
To love and protect each other is the quintessential value of feminist religion – whether we are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Baha’i, or Jew. The commitment to kindness, fairness and mutual support is the heart of the ancient, pre-patriarchal culture of Old Europe that inspires Goddess feminists and can lead the way back to a society and a planet that is safe for everyone– including future generations.
Its core values include sustainability, inclusiveness, empathy, creativity, and reverence for the earth. They provide the foundation for a culture based on partnership, belonging and cooperation, instead of hierarchy, domination and competition (Gimbutas 1991, Christ 1987, Eisler 1987, Flinders 2002, Göttner-Abendroth 2009, Shannon 2016).
It has always been a guiding principle of the United States to welcome refugees of war and persecution. And what about the moral obligation of those who profit from wars in oil-producing Middle Eastern nations, to help repair the damage and destruction wrought by those wars? What about those born here – like myself, like Trump – whose ancestors came as immigrants?
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
-Inscription on the Statue of Liberty, by Emma Lazarus, 1883.
As feminists, the lamp we lift is our belief in community, justice, and a culture of peace.
As feminists of faith, we hold it high so that those of any religion – and any age, race, or gender – may follow its light to sanctuary and safety.
Let us help each other now to light and lift our lamps. In these dark days, we’re going to need to be able to see the road ahead.