What Lady Liberty, a stolen passport, and my 5-year-old taught me about immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers
Athens was dirty and hot—a stubbly armpit in August—and she contained the thief who had stolen my passport and the cash I had worked all summer to save.
I hated her.
After six months on the road I was about to enter chapter two of my backpacking adventure. All I needed to do was mail a small package home, get my Greek drachma turned into US dollar traveler’s checks, and buy my train ticket to Istanbul.
Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt—my trip was mapped out in the margins of my Lonely Planet guidebook. So what if I was 18 and American? I was already straddling the invincible, invisible bridge between childhood and adulthood, convinced I could do anything I set my mind to. (How truly American of me. Ahem.)
I never realized how much my passport was a part of me until it ceased to exist. Without a home, or a document stating I had a home, I felt vulnerable and alone. Defeated.
My privilege wasn’t lost on me though. Because I’m American it took only the kindness of a stranger, some wire-transferred money from my anxious parents, and a few bus trips back and forth to the US consulate before I was once again on my way.
Penniless and deflated, I tucked away my Middle East on a Shoestring travel companion and tried my luck in England instead, using false papers to pull beers and scoop popcorn for enough to pay the rent. (Yes, I worked illegally.) I lived off beans on toast and cigarettes during those months, and I made the most of living Plan B.
Ten years later I was all grown up and living in Australia, working full-time with a Christian missions organization, wearing my newfound faith like a badge of I Belong. My teenage invincibility gave way to young adult zeal bent on “changing the world,” and without realizing what happened I’d woven the great, dusty-red nation right throughout the center of my heart. When the Olympics rolled around I’d proudly claim my stars and stripes, but mostly, I considered myself adopted and assimilated into the nation I called my home.
When a letter arrived in the mail stating I had 28 days to leave the country it took my breath away. (Not in the Tom Cruise Top Gun sort of way, unfortunately.) My “routine” visa renewal application had been denied on a technicality that even the top immigration official in our state agreed was unfair (though it was the “letter of the law” and so couldn’t be skirted). No longer was I welcome in Australia. I had exactly four weeks to pack my bags and pull seven years of roots up from the soil. It was either that or go through the formal appeals process with the Ministry of Immigration, which is exactly what I did. (It’s worth noting here that it’s a costly, tedious, and time-consuming process, which many don’t have the means to embark on. Again—I recognize my privilege here.)
Friends of mine right now face a similar possibility. They wait for the day when a decision is made on their future. Four Australian babies and a life of work and community built into the actual fabric of the nation, and yet any day they might be told it’s their turn to make the 28-day departure. If blood, sweat, tears, and dreams could be measured, they’ve poured more than enough into this land to rightfully call it their own.
I’m still here in Australia of course. When Ryan and I got engaged—while my denied visa application was under appeal—we took extra care to provide a thousand documented reasons why our relationship wasn’t one of immigration convenience, but was, in fact, a legitimate promise of love. Again, while awaiting that decision I floated in limbo—would I be granted permission to stay in my home with the man I loved? Or would I have to pack up and leave years worth of memories and return to the place of my birth?
Even with a secure and safe home to return to (I truly do love and appreciate America), when my Australian visa was denied I felt absolutely alien—more “other” than I’d ever felt before.
Nearly eight years later I’m still technically an “alien” in Australia. Of course I now have permission to live here with my husband (I’m a legal alien) but I can’t yet vote or travel on the same passport as my children. My longing for home splits my heart with yearning for the tall trees of Oregon and the wide-open beaches of Australia. Both are somehow mine. (By the way, I choose to use the word alien here in order to emphasis my otherness. I don’t recommend using this term for others unless they are already self-identifying with this term.)
I’m an immigrant in a nation of immigrants. And I am from a nation of immigrants. Most of us—if you look far enough back—didn’t come with permission from those who once ruled our land. But we came anyway. We caused division and development, calamity and prosperity. Ours is a history soiled and speckled and still only partially told. We’re making progress at figuring out how to own up to the ways we took ownership and made neighborhoods out of land that wasn’t our own, both in Australia and in America, but we have a long way to go.
It’s complicated. We recognize our heritage of migration, with only decades passed since our own passports were first stamped.
I may not have citizenship yet in Australia but I do recognize that I live in Gadigal Land and have asked for the blessing of Indigenous Australian elders to share in the wealth of their nation. Is this “required” of me? No. But I personally felt this was an important part of me honoring the place I feel led to call home. (Maybe if we all took a little more time to recognize where we’ve come from, we would be more grateful for where we’ve come to.)
A year ago I took my Australian husband to stand at the foot of our Lady Liberty in New York City and read with tears streaming down my face:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I recognized myself in Emma Lazarus’s words. I was the poor, the homeless; I was also the lady lifting my lamp to the darkness joining in chorus, beckoning come.
As I read those verses and imagined the ships teeming with tired, seasick souls catching their first glimpse as they navigated around her to Ellis Island, my heart swelled with gratitude and sadness. We’ve taken this strong, beautiful woman and showcased her as our monument to liberty, but we’ve forgotten to whom the declaration of liberty was for. There’s a reason she’s facing east, not west—her declaration ringing out to those who would arrive on America’s shores. She stood as a safe haven for the poor. A door-opener for opportunity-seekers. An embracer of religious-freedom-seeking pilgrims.
She stood in welcome.
Along with the rest of the world I cried over photos of Aylan and Gimeal that surfaced in August. I’ve superimposed the faces of my own three and five-year-old boys over the faces of those little ones washed up on the Turkish shores. My heart heaves under the grief of the reality that the quest for home felt more urgent when we were finally able to put a little boy’s face and name to it.
My own stories of displacement stand like shadowy imposters next to the giants of present-day Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan and the hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Theirs aren’t tales of a girl lost or a passport stolen or a simple visa denied; they’re stories marked by terrorizing fear and suffering, anguished decisions made between one horrible reality or another.
It’s easy for me to set my soapbox up on facebook and chant “let them in, let them in!” and boil with anger when our governments betray the very things our nations were founded on. But it’s harder for me to find ways in my own life to welcome. But as a Jesus-person, if I can’t welcome, then I am no better than a religious Pharisee.
Hey Jesus-people: our governments are beginning to listen; now it’s our turn to open our churches, our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our hearts.
Will we say WELCOME, too?
A few days ago I took the boys to walk for peace, joining hundreds of others in #WalkTogether to show our support and solidarity for refugees and asylum seekers. On our way there I prepped the boys, explaining why it’s important we welcome immigrants and care for them, no matter how they come. I shared about how Jesus loves it when we welcome.
“We want to welcome people to live in Australia just like Nanny and Poppy welcomed us to live in their house, right?” my little Levi said (reflecting on the time they took us in for several months when we had nowhere else to go).
And that’s exactly right.
Seems we could all learn something from the wise and beautiful words of my five-year-old.
What does the Bible say about refugees?
(Including a printable PDF of 50+ scriptures for your further study.)