The Three Syllables That Divide Us

I don’t remember much of anything before I was five, apart from my trip from The Azores to America in 1998. At the airport, Mama bought me a Polly Pocket toy that opened like a book, revealing a miniature island resort inside. I had Polly dive into the plastic ocean as I watched São Miguel become Polly Pocket-sized from the airplane window. All I knew was that Papa was waiting for us in a new world where everyone spoke a funny language and ate McDonald’s. I couldn’t wait to land.

I didn’t look foreign in America – blonde hair and pale skin kept me camouflaged. My inability to speak perfect English for the first four years, however, gave me away. Then it was the word “Immigrant”, which forced me into a category separate from most of my peers. A simple three syllable word that has followed me like a shadow since the day my feet touched American ground. I wear the title like a tattoo, but it’s hidden well under the lightness of my skin. “You don’t look Portuguese” is a phrase I’ve heard almost as often as I hear, “do you spell Mariana with one n or two?”

My coloring made integrating into the American lifestyle painless. I played street hockey with neighbors and filled an empty college dorm room with my belongings freshman year, just like everyone else. Though I have the citizenship to prove that I’m lawfully American, I never once felt that I needed the paperwork to make it so.

The same was always true for the rest of my family. We knew we were privileged to be here, to lead our normal lives and to walk among everyone as equals. It wasn’t until a certain copper-haired billionaire sat in the president’s throne that we felt the weight of those three syllables on our skin. Immigrant. Up until January 2017, “immigrant” had still been symbolic of our inclusion and freedom.

During the last week of January 2017, I watched my social media newsfeeds get swarmed by endless images and videos of families being turned away from US-bound flights. “Trump’s Muslim ban” had become the core of every discussion, heated debate, and wave of new protests around the world. I clicked on dozens of videos and read countless articles, all the while feeling the knot in my stomach tighten. The new executive order barred seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. It suspended the United States’ refugee system for 120 days and even turned away legal green card holders, separating travelers from their families. I swallowed my disgust, but the aftertaste stayed with me all week long.

In early February, during my walk to class I heard the ding of a new Facebook notification beckon me. My grandmother had posted on our Family group page. Her posts were typically pictures she’d take during her sunset walks, or montages of my baby brother. They were always peaceful. This particular post was not. In two short sentences, she demanded that anyone who had or continued to support Trump unfriend her immediately and never speak to her again. It was unlike her but, in light of recent events, entirely justified. Everyone in the family understood and showered her with positive messages to show their support all week long. We knew we were all on same team.

Like the rest of us, my grandmother carries the weight of her immigrant roots now more than ever. As a green card holder from Madeira, a woman without U.S. citizenship, the immigration ban posed a very real threat to her. She asked herself if there was a chance a barrier would come between her and her loved ones some day too.

Though my family and I are frightened, we fully recognize our privilege. The color of our skin, our religious preferences, even our lifestyle choices, have been deemed “normal” and “acceptable”. You could place me beside a Syrian refugee and, though we both don the same immigrant cloak, I get handed the free pass. It’s no wonder a sour taste still lingers in the back of my throat.

While refugees, fleeing from the threats of their perspective countries, are turned away on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, I simply go about my life. I stress about finals, drink wine with my roommates, watch back-to-back episodes of Shameless for hours, and carry on this way. What gives me the right to this life? What makes me more worthy of shelter and opportunity than the thousands of people currently being turned away like vermin? There is no answer, and that is why this issue extends far beyond immigration. It’s about the segregation and isolation of people that are different from us. It’s about fear.

As these questions fill my mind, so do the sallow faces of Syrian families desperate for aid – merely one vulnerable group of many whose suffering is being wrongfully neglected. For weeks before this ban had even taken place I had developed an obsession with the Syrian crisis. The helplessness I felt, the unimaginable and inhumane violence I watched from an expensive laptop screen, and the children – the hundreds of thousands of innocent children’s bodies pulled out of rubble – draped my world into darkness and filled my eyes with tears at night. I felt in my gut at the time that surely the American government would help. Surely things couldn’t carry on this way. Yet, here we are – 120 days of neglect and counting.

Research what life is like in the seven countries on Trump’s ban list and ask yourself if one word is strong enough to cancel out the guilt and pity you feel. Immigrant, Muslim, black, child, woman, white, whatever label you please – it disappears when someone’s suffering is on display directly in front of you.

Though our individual stories are unique and the labels etched into our skin still serve to mark our differences, we all share a universal right to compassion. The tangled string of injustices that continues to grow will never be cut until we take a stand, reach out our hands, and look each other in the eyes.

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