Finding Compassion as a White Immigrant Child in a Muslim Kingdom

Finding Compassion as a White Immigrant Child in a Muslim Kingdom July 3, 2018

I am flabbergasted by the immigration policy nightmare created by the Trump administration in the US lately. With each image I see of sobbing children and terrified parents, with each report of detention camps and toddlers appearing alone in our courts, I am shaken down to my inner child. Then there is this Muslim travel ban, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, and rejection of Syrian War refugees. I do not approve of how my nation is treating our global neighbors.

Regardless of what the propaganda machine states officially, their xenophobic motivations are glaringly obvious to me. I see the obvious discrimination against “brown people” and Muslims, and I am ashamed of my government.  Look, I know immigration policies are complicated, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. Discussing politics is not my wheelhouse, but I have a story to share. My feelings are personal, because I was once an immigrant child – a white, christian, American girl traveling with my parents into the brown, Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to find work.

Map of Saudi Arabia – CC0 Creative Commons – Pixabay

The Hypocrisy Burns

I’ve heard too much ignorant bleating from white Trumpist sheep, confused why any foreign parent would attempt to enter America knowing how unwelcome they would be here. I’ve heard condemnation of these “bad parents” for exposing their children to such dangers. It is usually a white American smugly complaining about how these poor “brown” people are “invading” America to exploit our resources. Need I remind you that America exists because white Europeans invaded here and exploited the resources of the “brown people” who lived here? I mean, COME ON!  This was the very modus operandi of the Imperialist White Man’s Burden? It still happens every single day.

I also hear American Christians screaming about their fear of ultra-conservative Muslim religious law. All while they try to impose their own brand of ultra-conservative Christian religious law. The hypocrisy BURNS.

On these issues, my pointy opinions were honed through first hand experience.

My family at a The Arabian Nights restaurant in Jeddah, 1984.

Americans Migrate to find work, too.

It was the winter of 1982-1983, and my father worked in construction management for Fluor Corporation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. Ronald Reagan was in office, and the country entered a crippling recession. Unemployment in the US rose to the highest levels since 1941. My dad was given an option: unemployment, or move to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When faced with the choice of staying where your children might suffer, or leave so they can thrive, he made a good father’s choice. A similar choice, I’m sure, many Central-American migrant workers are also compelled to make.

Into the Danger Zone of the early 80’s:

Tensions were high between the US and the middle-eastern countries over Israel/Palestinian conflict. U.S Embassies in Beirut and Kuwait were bombed, killing many. The Iran–Iraq War raged on. Lebanon was in a civil war. Then in 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah terrorists and American passengers were systematically beaten for weeks as retribution for our meddling in the region; United States Navy diver Robert Stethem was executed, and his body was thrown onto the tarmac. My father was a Navy Reservist at the time. In short, choosing to immigrate with your kids across a war zone, where we were truly despised for real reasons, was very dangerous but we went anyway.

I was nine years old, and my baby sister was five, so we were mostly oblivious to global politics. What I do remember was the constant worry my mother tried to hide, and the all-consuming stress as we uprooted from our home, to seek out an entirely different kind of survival in a foreign land.

My father arrived in late 1982, and was in Jeddah working for nine months before he finally arranged for us to join him there. This was no small feat even with a giant corporation advocating for him. So yes, we had our documents in order, but we were made well aware of the tenuous allowance we’d find there. We were always ready to bug-out on a 24 hour deportation notice.

Mosque in Saudi Arabia – CC0 Creative Commons – Pixabay

Infidels

King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came to the throne in 1982, and was known for a movement toward western-style modernization. But let’s be clear: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy – an autocracy under strict Sharia Islamic law. This is far from a benevolent government, and are globally criticized for their human-rights violations. Religious police patrol the streets with automatic weapons enforcing compliance with their religion. Break a law, and you were publicly beheaded in the Old Town square come Friday morning. If you were obviously a Westerner, in the wrong place at the wrong time, the police might force you to the front and make you watch. This happened to people we knew.

We were part of a huge influx of foreigners from every patch of the globe – from every race, creed, language, nation, and income bracket. Immigrants filled every type of  job that Saudi citizens either refused to fill, or were (as of yet) incapable of filling themselves.(1) Sound familiar?

Yet, despite our intention to help build and serve this nation, we were well aware of the condescension the locals felt about us. Mind you, in a nation of Oil-Rich billionaires, just about everyone else is a “poor person come to exploit their resources,” and we were no exception. I went to college thanks to their resources, but we were lesser-thans in their eyes. We were infidels. As a girl, I would be chattel given less consideration than a Sheik’s camel.

If it isn’t obvious by now, I am not a fan of the Saudi Arabian government.

My mom and me with a Saudi salesman at Rayed-Al-Harbi Jewelers in the Jeddah Gold Market, 1985

An Immigrant Child’s Perspective

I’m sure that my parents would give you a more nuanced report about their time as adult “ex-patriots.” I can only offer you the memories of a child. For the most part, I’m grateful for our adventures there. Inside our gated, locked and guarded private compound, we led a happy life of pluralism. My childhood friends were from Palestine, Thailand, Singapore, Chile, England, Egypt, Greece, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Tanzania…the list could go on…

When we ventured out into the city, or traveled through customs, it could be scary, even under our privileged circumstances. I didn’t know the language, had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t really have a choice in being there. I completely trusted that my parents would take care of me as they always had. As we were processed, searched, and questioned, sometimes the police enjoyed intimidating us. They wore military uniforms with berets, and brandished automatic weapons. I would hold my breath and cling to my parents.

But there is no way to paint Arabic people with one broad stroke. We met many friendly and accepting folks who rolled out the Persian rug of hospitality and treated us as honored guests. Despite regional tensions, and a few dicey moments, we were never treated cruelly, with nary a whisper of us children being harmed…that would be inconceivable.

Myself in their Shoes

When I put myself into that same scene happening today at the US border, except trying to imagine that my parents are ripped away from me, and I’m thrown in a cage for weeks on end? Atrocity. Transported far from them to some detention camp without explanation? Monstrous. Expected to navigate the processes of a foreign legal system without them? Ridiculous! If ever I were an innocent child alone, at risk of sexual exploitation and physical abuse, treated like inconvenient vermin by the so-called most powerful free nation in the world? Shameful.

I empathize in a deeply personal way with these thousands of traumatized children at our Southern Border. My inner child panics just thinking about it. As a parent of my own two children, I am outraged!  Nothing justifies these human rights violations. Nothing. It is monstrous to abuse children as a “deterrent,” or use them as political pawns. Period.

My sister and I as we board a plane to Saudi Arabia.

The Progressive Incubator

I know exactly how lucky I’ve been in this life as a middle-class white girl with all the accompanying privileges. I can only guess at how motivating violence, starvation and war would be to a parent who would choose to walk with their babies for MONTHS across wild terrain to seek asylum in a foreign land. My immigration experience was just similar enough that I have no problem empathizing with every immigrant and refugee seeking work and safety here. However, we shouldn’t need our own traumas in order to show compassion for our global neighbors. I’d like to think my wealthy democratic nation would rise to the occasion, and show MORE compassion than an autocracy, not less.

I lived in the city of Jeddah with my family from 1983 until 1986. I arrived as a 9 year old in 4th grade, and returned as a 12 year old after finishing the 6th grade. The best experience my republican parents granted their white daughters, was the opportunity to grow up as a minority in hostile territory. We know what it means to be maligned based on our nationality, skin color, gender, and religion. We were at the mercy of religious law, where there was no such thing as a bill of rights, no free press, nor due process, nor human rights, nor civil rights, nor women’s rights…nada. Much to my conservative parent’s chagrin, they raised us in a feminist, progressive incubator.

When a foreigner resides with you in your land…

My family came back to the US, and I grew up as a far more conscientious global citizen. I’m no longer a Christian, but my separation-of-church-and-state-government tells me that their immigration policies are justified because they are biblical. I call bullsh!t.

Leviticus 19:33-34 When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself…”

We don’t need religion to inform our political positions in this situation; we have the Constitution of the United States of America. It was written by revolutionaries and refugees, for a nation of immigrants, to protect us all from the abuses of autocratic despots. This noble American experiment has been a long-bumpy road of trial and error. We’ve not yet achieved “greatness,” but by tooth and nail we fight for progress, slowly improving happiness, safety, and justice for all. We have to stop this back-sliding into cruelty.

CC0 Creative Commons – Pixabay

Declaration of Independence: The reason for the season

The patriotism that I’ll be celebrating this Independence day will be that of revolution. I celebrate the inalienable rights of all my fellow humans beings.  I find inspiration in the Declaration of Independence. Here are a few choice clips:

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… But when a long train of abuses… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government

I would also point out, in case you haven’t read the declaration recently, that among the long list of offenses charged against the Crown as justifiable reasons for their revolution was this one:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither

 

The Moral of the Story:

Through my immigration experiences abroad, I can report that I’ve found nothing “superior” about Americans. In fact, quite the opposite as we are way behind the curve on every facet of civilized societal advancement. I’ve traveled all over the world, and neither have I found anything superior about white people, or christian people, or “first world” people. People are just people. We all want to provide a decent life for our kids, and we all deserve to be treated with dignity as a basic human right. Anyone who says otherwise is a tyrant, a despot, and I deem that inhumane opinion to be un-American.

On our sacred honor, it is our duty to throw off this Government of absolute despots, gods help us!

~Heron Michelle


1) As of 2018,  immigrants make up 37% of the total population of Saudi Arabia, according to UN data. Non-muslims are not allowed citizenship. Source

About Heron Michelle
Heron Michelle is a witch, priestess, mom, artist and shopkeeper living in Greenville, North Carolina. Connect with her on Facebook: Witch on Fire: Heron Rising Services and follow her on Twitter @HeronMichelle13. You can read more about the author here.
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