When I was 19 and living in Abu Dhabi with my parents, my family was accosted by some Arab teenage boys at the local park. They approached us in a pack formation, heaved water balloons and cussed. They did not care about the Filipinos picnicking, the Palestinians playing soccer, or the Pakistani workers napping. They singled us out and made it clear that we weren’t welcome. I was so confused. At that point, we had lived amongst them for more than 10 years — but this was my first experience with xenophobia.
Some ten years later, xenophobia is still present in my life today. I see it on the news constantly and unfortunately, from time to time, encounter people that express similar intolerant concerns. In American politics, we devote a lot of air time to people who make ignorant remarks about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, Asians, women, veterans and the handicapped.
Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donal Trump blatantly called for the end of all Muslim immigration into the United States, and we have him a great deal of attention for it. And it’s nerve-wracking to imagine the effect these remarks might have on people who haven’t had much exposure to the cultures, ethnicities and religions that are different from their own. Trump’s campaign has been a vehicle for indiscriminate bigotry and it suggests to some that Americans are entitled to react to the world that way. But I’ve found that there are so many different ways to experience life and it’s very hard to argue that one is better than the other.
If you’ve spent a significant time abroad, xenophobic remarks back home are particularly frustrating — but imagine how the wounded, Muslim, African American Iraq veteran feels. I will never forget how I felt when my family was being harassed by the teenagers in the park. I was red hot with embarrassment and trembling with rage. I felt betrayed. They didn’t know that we weren’t “like the rest of them.” They didn’t know that we were familiar with their culture and that we respected it.
It was breezy that evening in the park and the sun was just going down. We were minding our own business, taking pictures, commemorating a special day together — but none of that mattered. Some kids got stirred up when they saw our white, western family, speaking English. It doesn’t feel good to be approached aggressively like that, it’s very jarring.
I vividly remember how my dad handled the situation. He was clearly agitated by the insults and very concerned for our safety, but his first inclination was to ignore them as much as possible. Meanwhile, being the hot head I can be, I was compelled to yell back at them for having such audacity. My dad had to shut me up and then very calmly, yet deliberately, tell us all to go back to the car. I felt dejected.
I had experienced Arabic animosity several times in the past but this was different. This translated to: “Leave or things will escalate.” My Dad knew best. Cooler heads prevail. What good could it possibly do, in that situation, to respond to these young men? They might have gotten their parents or the authorities involved and that would have put us all in jeopardy.
I’ve learned that when you live in a foreign place, you should always be on your best behavior. Learn to respect the local culture and its customs. The same goes for immigrants here in the United States. This often means you can’t take the positions you may have back in your home country, which can be hard to swallow, like pride. Small altercations can be misunderstood very easily away from home and depending on where you are in the world, the legal system doesn’t always operate under an “innocent-until-proven-guilty” rule like it does in the US. In my family’s situation, we could have all gone to the police station. My dad could have lost his job. My family could have been deported. You never know.
When fear is the predominant motivation, things can, and often do, get misconstrued. The Oxford Dictionary defines xenophobia as an “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.” Note that the word “phobia” is included in the term, suggesting that it can be overpowering and unconditional even in the most imprudent ways. So consider this, when you encounter a xenophobe, think of them as having a condition that restricts them from functioning in society — and remember your compassion. It’s truly one’s own misfortune if they do not embrace other groups of people.
I pity Donald Trump and those like him. Learning to adapt and assimilate quickly is a byproduct of being an expat, but everyone should be capable of common decency and humanity. His campaign is doing a disservice to the public for inciting such radical, unreasonable policies. It makes my heart ache to observe all the xenophobia and fear-mongering that has spread due to his position on the Syrian Refugee crisis. Just because I was heckled by some kids at a park, I don’t hold that against an entire group of people. Doing that has never served anyone — just remember Chinese internment and the Holocaust.
It’s still within our power as U.S. citizens to ensure that entire groups of people are not isolated, and that our society is not indoctrinated with xenophobia. Don’t let the opportunity to vote pass you by — or you can expect traveling abroad to get even more challenging. Try to have discussions with your friends and family about your compassions for others. Share the similarities you cherish with anyone who has doubts. Difference is good — embrace it. And when you encounter someone who is struggling with difference, try being the light.
One such champion fighting to educate people about xenophobia and racism is South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley. Last year she saw that the Confederate flag was taken down from the state house and this month she responded to the State of the Union Address — her main themes included avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and being inclusive. Bravo. I also admire the efforts made in South Africa in 2008 by the Together public service announcements to dispel xenophobia in the wake of all the deadly riots. Being the land of the free, it only makes sense that America should be at the forefront of these efforts, rather than publicizing potential leaders who fall on the wrong side of this issue.
Xenophobia is an unfortunate ailment in society but let’s consider this as an opportunity educate ourselves about it. Go forth and prosper, everyone.