Racism and Bigotry are Alive and Well in Nebraska

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Courtesy of Josiah Mannion, Biblename Foto

The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the United States, freedom, and well, liberty. The American Museum of Immigration is housed in structures attached to the base of the statue, and a plaque is emblazoned with “The New Colossus,” which contains the passage:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

We are a country consisting primarily of the descendants of immigrants, a country that celebrates its early settlers from abroad. You would think that if any country would welcome immigrants with open arms, this would be it.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Nebraska’s own Governor Pete Ricketts has requested that the resettlement agencies do not work to resettle any Syrian immigrants in Nebraska. This is an attempt to turn away people who are victims based on irrational fear.

It’s not okay to punish an entire population because of the actions of a few; it only perpetuates fear and discrimination. It’s not okay to turn away people in need. It’s not okay to only allow refugees of certain religions in. As President Obama said, “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

It shouldn’t matter what religion, or what color someone’s skin is. Remember when the body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey? The world wept for those fleeing Syria. Their situation hasn’t improved; it’s time to step up and welcome the Syrian refugees with open arms. Governor Ricketts’ views are not representative of all Nebraskans.

Unfortunately, his views are very much in line with some Nebraskans, several of whom attended the Nebraska Families Collaborative’s Community Advisory Board Meeting Thursday night.

I went to the meeting because the Global Faith Institute had posted on Facebook about going and disrupting the meeting because they don’t want Syrian refugees allowed in Nebraska.

The room was full, but we founds seats in the back. Next to me, there was a group that was passing out “facts sheets” about refugees. I didn’t get a copy of one, but I did get a good look at one and from what I saw, they looked a lot more like fear mongering than facts. They were also making their plans for getting their points across, and decided to go give a pile of their “facts sheets” to the Community Advisory Board members. The meeting began and the Chair made it clear to the packed room that the meeting would start at 6pm and end promptly at 7:30pm and that they had an agenda they would be following, but there would be 15 minutes for public comment at the end.

The first hour and fifteen minutes of the meeting was informative and interesting, and I learned more about a lot of really good things happening in Omaha, and really great services being provided. Representatives from Lutheran Family Services talked about their refugee programs and services, and then the Refugee Coordinator from Omaha Public Schools talked about the services they are providing to refugee students. At one point while the representative from LFS was speaking, an audience member attempted to ask a question about Syrian refugees, but was promptly asked to wait until the allotted public comment time to ask questions. Next up were presenters discussing adoption and the foster system. I think that I might start attending these meetings regularly because it was beneficial to learn about these systems that are in place in Omaha, and I obtained enough information that I now know where I can look to help and assist. Good stuff, all around.

At 7:15pm, the Chair opened the floor for public comments. Before the words were even out of his mouth, fifteen hands shot up. The man who had attempted to ask a question about Syrian refugees earlier was up first, and I’m not sure that he actually asked a question, but rather rambled on about Syrian law and when local law enforcement gets involved. The second part of his question was about the prevalence of psychotropic medications in the refugee youth population. After that, the questions (if they can be called that) got ugly. One woman was upset about her own situation and lashed out at the committee, ending with “if we can’t take care of our own children, why should we help refugee children?” The audience erupted into applause at that. The Chair politely reminded her multiple times that they don’t want to discuss personal cases in that forum, but that she can contact them to discuss and moved on to the next question. What followed was a series of questions from a man in a suit demanding to know if they had plans to opt out of resettling Syrian refugees in Nebraska. The answer was that it would be several months before any Syrians were resettled in Nebraska. This wasn’t a good enough answer, of course, so the man kept repeating the question along with stating that there is no good way to vet refugees and it would be irresponsible to allow them in. The room looked like it was full of bobbleheads from all the nodding going on. The next “question” was a woman that was upset because refugees are unable to assimilate to American culture. She was prompted to ask a question, not just give a commentary, and when she continued her story they moved on, reminding everyone that there is limited time for questions and they only have time for one more. The man two rows ahead of me with the American flag hat on had been antsy throughout the whole meeting, increasingly so during the public comments portion. He had been raising his hand, then sitting up straight and raising it higher, and moving to the edge of his seat, bouncing up and down with his hand up. When he heard there was only time for one more question, he stood up with his hand up, but then conceded to letting another representative from his group ask the final question. The final question was a very blonde gentleman stating that this is a democratic country, and there are people that want to discuss the Syrian refugee issue at the meeting, and asked the Chair to extend the meeting. The Chair responded that at the beginning of the meeting he had said they were ending at 7:30pm and that was the plan. While he was saying this, the blonde man started talking over him, then said, “oh, excuse me – I thought I was talking.” The Chair ended the meeting, and instantaneously the room was abuzz with outrage and frustration.

Here are some snippets of conversations I overheard:

“This is America! We have the right to free speech!”
“They haven’t heard the last of us!”
“They’re going to come over here and blow our heads off, and that blood is on their hands!”
“Some of us came just to talk about this, and now they’re just going to cut us off? They’re just trying to avoid the conversation!”
“They need a plan to assimilate!”

And so on… insert whatever racist, bigoted commentary you want and it was probably said. It was a disappointing display of humanity. With this kind of hate towards a community of people, it’s no wonder that the Islamic Center of Omaha was recently vandalized. The bigots broke into small groups and made plans for continuing the conversation, plotting out their next moves.

I will say this – I was so immensely impressed with the way that the Advisory Board handled the meeting. They stuck to the agenda even though there was a room full of angry people, they kept the Q&A moving along, and they ended the meeting when they said they were going to. That in and of itself upset the bigots more than anything; they went there planning to use bully tactics to get their voices heard and it didn’t work.

As I sat there during the meeting, with good friends on one side but otherwise surrounded by people promoting fear mongering and bigotry, I couldn’t help but think about the United States and how it is supposed to be “the melting pot.” I myself am of mixed descent – my ancestors were German, English, Irish, and Cherokee, which means that other than my Cherokee ancestors, the rest were immigrants. Looking around the room, I’m guessing that the predominantly white crowd’s ancestors were also immigrants for the most part. How ignorant, self-serving, and hypocritical is it that a country made up of the descendants of immigrants, that celebrates its early settlers from abroad, is now turning away immigrants that are desperately in need of a better place to live?

 

 

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