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In his first ten days in office,  the President of the United States has shown us that the lessons of history do not apply to him. Swiftly and proudly, he has signed a string of Executive Orders, the most recent barring citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering America for at least 90 days. He’s not done yet. The order – signed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – also calls for a review of more countries to be added to the ban; a suspension of America’s refugee program; a ban of all Syrian refugees; and, a call for new immigration screening procedures. “Extreme vetting,” he barks.

My preoccupation with this is personal, taking me back home, to Northern Ireland in the 1980s,  a time when it was not uncommon for me to hand over my driver’s license for inspection by a member of the British Army or an RUC officer at seemingly random road closures and checkpoints.

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I recall a snowy afternoon at the top of the Ligoniel Road in Belfast. A student teacher, not yet twenty-one and heading home for Christmas, I was moving out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College. My little Datsun weighed down with library books and lecture notes, clothes and toiletries, boxes of vinyl records and cassette tapes, a collection of concert posters wrapped in rubber bands, my prized hi-fi, and a violin, I somehow looked less like a university student and more, perhaps, like an IRA terrorist. Even though I had my license and could answer politely and truthfully, the young soldiers’ questions about where I had been and where I was going – “extreme vetting”  – still I had to step aside in the slush and the snow. Cold and annoyed, I watched and waited as they rifled through the contents of my car, looking under the seats and in the trunk, emptying out my make-up bag, disturbing the folders of college papers. All in the name of security I know, but to this day I question the randomness of it. I remember raging inside – seething – that I was being subjected to such treatment in my own country. My. Own. Country. I said nothing.  Not a word. Soon, they sent me on my way, but I will never forgot it or the way it made me wonder about what it was about me on that particular day that would cause British soldiers with guns to interrogate me and order me out of my vehicle and search its contents? Did I fit some profile? Did I look like a terrorist? What was the ‘reasonable suspicion?” Who was I?


In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1995, poet Seamus Heaney shares a heart-stopping moment from the history of our anguished and wounded Northern Ireland. In this story, lies a powerful lesson about humanity – one that would serve well the President of these United States and anyone who aspires to the ideals of America and to the future we desire for our children and ourselves:

“One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA . . . The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.”

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We all get it. We understand that illegal immigration is a problem of monumental proportion for these United States, but the executive order out of the White House on January 27, 2017 PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES is not the answer. We know better. We are better than this.  

I recall a college assignment from years ago, requiring us to draw comparisons between South Africa and Northern Ireland. Trying to confront the political impasse and to overcome the sectarianism that had defined us for too long, I suppose it made sense to learn from South Africa’s shameful past. But I never thought I would be compelled to revisit the topic as an immigrant in America in 2017. Never. The new President of the United States of America has taken me back to times I thought were behind us forever.

Times such as those when an apartheid government condoned the “banning of people.” Between 1948 and 1991, such a government severely restricted the movement of black South Africans and their political activities. The apartheid government’s mantra was simple:

  • Ban them.
  • Keep silent their opposition to apartheid.
  • Harass them at the slightest provocation.

They took it one step further by banning political opponents and using indefinite detention, imprisonment, torture, and political assassination. I could digress here and go back to the enactment of Internment Law in my Northern Ireland, but that is another sad chapter for another day. And finally, in South Africa, banning led to banishment, removing people from their homes and families, stripping them of their citizenship, and deporting them to remote areas of the country, the ill-named “homelands,” often without basic living necessities and always indefinitely.

For me, Donald Trump’s promises are eerily reminiscent of early apartheid laws in South Africa, particularly the “pass laws” that were put in place to segregate the population and to severely restrict the movement of South African blacks. It required all African males over the age of 16 to carry a “reference book” (formerly a ‘passbook’), documentation of personal information and employment history. Following its enactment, many Africans were then compelled to violate the pass laws in order to find work to support their families. This led to harassment, fines, and arrests. More bloodshed. It also led to resistence, because invariably, people will rise up against such abominations. In South Africa, there was the early Defiance Campaign, the massive women’s protest in Pretoria (1956), and then the 1960 massacre of 69 protestors at a ‘pass burning’ at the police station in Sharpeville.

There was Nelson Mandela.

Nelson-Mandela-PortraitMandela mattered – and he does today more than ever – because he represented what could be.  Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace  Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan once envisioned for Northern Ireland, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time.  Such a sight to behold, even on a television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.

As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.”  How could we not? His release was a moral imperative, the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and through that lens, we saw Margaret Thatcher and others in her party as resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell. Thatcher had even deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that when she died, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.

But when Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead with more blood spilled, eventually, apartheid would be taken down. De Klerk and Mandela, together, would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, a democratic nation, an example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness. It is possible to sustain humanity without a ban on immigrants or a Muslim registry.

The President’s Executive Order needs to sit on a shelf along with the pass laws of Apartheid, the Internment Act Law in Northern Ireland, and that book of laws in Nazi Germany prior to World War II that required Jews to carry papers and citizens to prove they weren’t Jewish. It is an assault on the ideals of America and reminds me of something Archbishop Tutu said about Arizona’s anti immigrant law, SB1070. Tutu raised the specter of apartheid, where black Africans could be jailed for being in their own country without their papers, degraded and deemed less worthy because of the color of their skin, and he cautioned us:

Abominations such as Apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here… They start with stripping people of rights and dignity – such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Not because it is right, but because you can.

Abominations start here.  #Resist

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