For the Refugees, on Rosh Hashanah

Afghan refugees

Immigrants at Ellis Island

Jailed migrant children, Arizona 2014

A friend who worked successfully to rescue endangered Afghan women—details are still secret—asked me to write a poem for them:

To a Land You Do Not Know

Welcome!
to a land you do not know.

Told like Abraham/Ibrahim
to get out, go forth, lekh lekha,
you left your home, your family
all that was familiar,
everything but your dreams.

Welcome!
In the name of those who came before you:
Those who fled famine,
who left when the rains failed
and the new shoots withered.

Those who fled war,
whose crops were trampled
under the hooves, the chariot wheels,
the boots of the invaders,
those whose stores were pillaged,
their cattle stolen.

Welcome!
In the name of my mother’s uncle
hiding for days in the reeds, in the mud,
keeping his head down
below the crossfire of opposing armies
on both sides of the river,
until they left and he got out,
went across the ocean
to a land he did not know.

In the name of my father’s father
who swam across another river,
fled the pogrom, fled the tsar’s army,
and made his way across Europe
to the port where he boarded a ship
that crossed the ocean
to a land he did not know.

Welcome!
In the name of my mother
who went hungry
when the farmers dared not plow
and plant while the bullets flew,
and she got out and crossed the ocean
to a land she did not know.

Welcome!
In the names of my neighbors, my friends
still speaking Spanish, Somali,
Vietnamese, German, Mandarin,
torn between their most cherished memories
and those they most long to forget.
Bienvenue, willkommen, ahlan wa sahlan,
mi casa es su casa.

I swear in the names
of all those who came before you
you are welcome here.

* * * * *
The poem was well received by at least one of the Afghani women, and I am pleased to note that Americans of all political persuasions are eager to help these refugees (although they might vote Democratic!). The same welcoming attitude prevailed when we took in Vietnamese at the end of our war there.

What most of my fellow citizens seem to forget is that we bear most of the responsibility for destroying Afghanistan, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, just as we did our best to destroy Vietnam, along with much of Laos and Cambodia, where children are still born with deformities due to Agent Orange.

The Other Refugees

The welcoming attitude vanishes when we’re faced with refugees from Mexico and Central America. We refer to these countries, contemptuously, as “banana republics,” forgetting that the term arose because they were dominated by United States-based fruit corporations.  If the people elected democratic governments, the C.I.A. intervened to overthrow them and install murderous dictators—some of them trained by our military.

In recent years, drug cartels have come to dominate. As always, whether these nations produce bananas or cocaine, most of the produce is destined for the voracious U.S. market. Outrageously underpaid agricultural and industrial workers toil long hours under dangerous conditions, with no benefits, while exposed to carcinogenic chemicals. Union organizers are frequently murdered, and gangs threaten their families with rape and murder.

When desperate people flee to the United States border to escape the conditions our own corporations and government created—in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, —we despise them for their poverty and lack of education. We separate them from their children and put them in jails. If they do manage to get through and find jobs, we allow employers to exploit them, and then periodically we raid those factories and plants and deport them. It keeps the workforce in fear and more easily exploited.

An Oath for the New Year

I’m posting this on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. There are many verses in both the Old and New Testaments commanding believers to welcome the stranger. “You shall not oppress a stranger. You know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 23:9

The Hebrew word ger has been translated as stranger, sojourner, resident alien, immigrant. Abraham went to Egypt when the crops failed in Canaan. During another famine, Ruth’s in-laws and her future husband moved to Moab. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to avoid the murderous King Herod. Interestingly, a closely related word in Arabic, hegira, refers to Mohammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, also to escape persecution.

As I wrote in my poem, above, my forbears were immigrants. Some came legally, before the restrictive “Emergency Quota Act” of 1921. Others arrived later, without papers, but all came for the same reasons: hunger and persecution. Therefore I repeat my vow to the refugee. Whoever you are, wherever you came from, I will help you however I can.

4 Responses to For the Refugees, on Rosh Hashanah

  1. Miriam Frank September 6, 2021 at 11:32 pm #

    Great spirit in this poem of welcome. My mother and father fled Nazi Germany late 1930s. They were comrades in the zionist movement, lost touch with each other, then re-kindled their relationship in Washington Heights, where I was born. I eventually settled in the same neighborhood where they first arrived

  2. Miriam Frank September 6, 2021 at 11:33 pm #

    Great spirit in this poem of welcome. My mother and father fled Nazi Germany late 1930s. They were comrades in the zionist movement, lost touch with each other, then re-kindled their relationship in Washington Heights, where I was born. I eventually settled in the same neighborhood where they first arrived.

  3. Connie O Byrne September 8, 2021 at 2:05 am #

    Oh Martha, once again you have blessed all of us with words that hold such strength, wisdom and love for the world. May the Creator of All bless you and all in your life, just as you have blessed us.

    Thank you once again
    Travel in peace
    Connie Byrne
    Kannapolis, NC

  4. Martha Shelley September 8, 2021 at 11:01 am #

    Oh my goodness, Connie. I’m just another crabby old lady with a long historical memory and a sharp pen (or keyboard these days). But thank you!

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