On a sunny afternoon in early September, my daughter Katie and I, along with my 3-year-old granddaughter, drove to an apartment complex in the central part of the city. Armed with Sharpies and Post-it notes, we parked on the street outside an eighties era building which was in need of paint and maintenance. We walked into the enclosed stairwell and immediately smelled the distinctly strong aroma of marijuana. It is common now to come across that particular odor in legalized Colorado. In some of the poorer sections of town, it is more prevalent and persistent. As was the case here. We climbed the worn carpeted stairs to the second floor and knocked on a stained wooden door. It was immediately answered by a beautiful woman whose brilliant white smile dominated her deep chocolate face.
She was wearing a turquoise scarf and flowing caftan which was sequined slightly in places and shimmered in the afternoon sunlight pouring in from the open windows. She said, in very halting English, “Please, come in. Have a seat.” Another woman and a little boy, with the same dazzling smiles stood to greet us and scurried to provide chairs and graciously escort us to them. The apartment was very small and very spartan. A sofa, a chair, a small TV, a small dining table with four chairs made up the bulk of the apartment. A tiny galley type kitchen, two small bedrooms, a small bathroom and a six-foot by three-foot balcony made up the rest.
This little family, Audrey, her 8-year-old daughter Fawouzia, and roommates Clarisse and Zoukourouflive here in this tiny apartment , in a new country, far from their war-torn country in Central Africa. After nearly two years living in a holding camp while waiting for permission to enter the United States, they are grateful to be here. They are confused, and struggling, and overwhelmed and the English language is difficult for them. Their native tongue, Sango, and fluent French has no place and is of little use in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West. And that is why we are here today.
After introductions, sort of, are made, we set about with the basics. Taking a sticky note and starting at the front door, Katie writes “DOOR” and says it out loud. The refugees grin and repeat “Door!” We all say “Door!” with big smiles and the sticky note is stuck on the front door. The game is on and an hour later, the apartment is covered with hot pink (Zoukourouf’s choice) sticky notes…“TABLE” “WALL” “CHAIR” “FRIDGE” “PHOTO” …and dozens of other everyday names for everyday items emblazoned on them. All the while with a halting exchange of broken English from them and even more broken French from us and a whole lot of sign language. With occasional help from Google Translate. But the constant was the exchange of humanity. We felt honored that they trusted us with this beginning to a safe, new life and so grateful that we are in a position to be of use to people so in need. They are so very clearly grateful for people who are kind to them. And for people who will try to communicate with them and not get angry or frustrated when they struggle to understand our language, our culture, our ideas, our country….our freedoms.
They are taught where they can shop for groceries, how to buy and use a bus pass, where to attend classes, and how to use the library. All within walking distance from a vehicle, driving etc is not within grasp just yet. They are provided minimal benefits and assessed for jobs skills. But most of all, they are taught that they are welcomed and urged to become Americans. They are introduced to our culture and customs. They are encouraged to understand that our government will help them, but they are expected to use this opportunity to provide a good life for themselves. They are pushed to embrace the American idea of liberty and choice and personal responsibility. They are placed in the position to thrive if they assimilate.
If. They. Assimilate. That is understood and expected. That is the infrastructure that has been set up for them. What we have not and can not do is to follow the disastrous example of European countries who have allowed mass immigration and refugees into their countries with no coherent plan to absorb them into their own culture and society. They have, instead, encourage the fallacy of multi-cuturalism, which while it sounds so inclusive and kind, is actually a recipe for exclusion and isolationism.
To “welcome” others into a new environment, a new country, a new culture, but then not only allow, but force them to remain stuck in the ideology, customs, culture, language and even oppression of the society they left by encouraging separate communities isolated from real Americanism, is not true immigration. It is basically just a change in geography. That is not the melting pot of America but rather the dysfunctional hodgepodge of disparate factions that Europe is quickly becoming. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is always a better way. Instead of fearing and shunning immigrants and refugees from Africa, Syria, Mexico…wherever…why don’t we do the truly uniquely American Ideal? Why don’t we accept them for who they are but then teach them what it mean to be an American? If we are working on the premise that America is exceptional, that we are a blessed nation, this makes sense.
No…I am not saying arrogantly that we are “better” than anyone else, but perhaps, we, as Americans can find a better way. We are a unique and special people. There is a reason that people want to come here. We do them, and ourselves, a huge disservice when we ignore the opportunity to fully integrate them into our culture. They miss the incredible experience of true Americanism and we lose out the incredible diversity of ideas which are kept in isolation. When we open our arms and accept immigrants into our country, we must also open our hearts and accept them into our lives.