10/17/2019 in Letters

2018 Executive Director’s Letter: Refugees & Immigrants

I love words and language but I hate when they become casualties of the political combat that is our daily reality.

Words, like the democratic norms that enable our society to struggle toward progress, can fall victim to totalitarian doublespeak and unchallenged lies. Perhaps George Orwell jumped the gun when he put the death of truth in 1984. We are living through frightening times today.

The incomparable and recently departed Toni Morrison said it best: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I fear the judgment that history may render by that measure.

Words have not lost their power, of course. Far from it. Words do matter. But they are too often the tools of propaganda with little regard for truth, accuracy or fairness. The President, who has unrivaled power to use words for moral leadership, instead more often uses them to wound and incite. Marshalling words against that tide to make a reasonable point can be a daunting challenge, especially on a topic like immigration which has been politicized in an especially savage way.

The need for common sense action on immigration persists. Refugees continue to seek asylum. Millions of undocumented immigrants and their children still live in the shadows. American employers still need the labor that newcomers are eager to provide. If we are ever to find common ground on immigration, words must help lead us to it.

The need for common sense action on immigration persists. Refugees continue to seek asylum. Millions of undocumented immigrants and their children still live in the shadows.

For now, incendiary words drive our attention to the southern border and the arrivals for which we are ill-prepared and toward which our government is increasingly hostile. The situation is only likely to worsen. As climate change intensifies it will make vast parts of our planet uninhabitable. Untold numbers of climate refugees will seek survival in the United States and elsewhere. What then?

Amid the torrent of words on immigration – the talking points, the political advertisements, the spin – it is all too common to miss the perspectives and testimony of those directly affected. The words of immigrants, even when sought, can be lost to language differences and far more often to the sheer volume and meanness of bombastic tweets. Refugees and immigrants have been decried as “invaders.” Parents trying to save the lives of their children are called “aliens.” Those driven from their homes by violence and fear are “animals” and “thugs.” Weaponized language like this inspires violent hatred, drives Americans apart and puts us that much farther from any sort of acceptable solution.

The George Gund Foundation stands with those who are victims of this language. We do so with the words you are reading here, with our grants to agencies that work for immigrant and refugee justice and also with the powerful images presented in this annual report by acclaimed photographer Fazal Sheikh. Even when words may fail, these pictures of refugees and immigrants in Northeast Ohio make their statement in the language of photography, of art.

This photo essay lets them be seen – to the extent they wish to be seen, for some feared showing their faces. Even with that limitation, they make the simple but essential point that they are human beings with all of the emotions that any of us would feel in their circumstances. They remind us that the immigration debate is not about the politicians whose words may obscure or distort their lives.

It is often said that we are a nation of immigrants. The people pictured here, like many Americans’ ancestors, left their homes to find safety for their families, to find work, to achieve a better life. Others were forcibly evicted or taken from their homes, driven to a new, unsought country – at least faintly echoing the experience of African Americans’ forebears. Like them, the faces in these photographs are not white and there can be no ignoring the role that race plays in the current immigration debate. Our history has given America a unique multicultural diversity, a reality that some refuse to accept. There are daily failures to see our common humanity in faces of a different shade, and the struggle over immigration parallels our larger national failure to adequately deal with racism. 

Clevelanders have long taken pride in our tapestry of nationalities. The Cultural Gardens along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and East Boulevard are the most visible expressions of that pride. We also demonstrate it by the hospitality Clevelanders show to refugees through programs such as The Refugee Response, Global Cleveland, International Newcomers Academy of the Cleveland school system, HOLA, and Catholic Charities’ legal assistance. The religious imagery in the photographs reflects the faith traditions that sheltered some of those pictured and also the tenet of nearly all faiths that commands the welcoming of strangers. That spirit certainly moves these organizations and others. It should move us all. Compassion is not policy, of course, but policy without it can be mere cruelty. This letter is no policy prescription but it is a call for recognizing the humanity of refugees and immigrants and for considering that humanity in policy making. To do otherwise, to follow the path of demonizing those who seek to join our country, is to abandon our fundamental ideals and to sacrifice what we yet aspire to be our national character. We must do better.

Signature of David Abbott
David Abbott
Executive Director