As a mother of two little girls, aged 4 and 6, the photograph of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, the waves lapping the face of his lifeless body, shook me.
But the tears came much later — not as I saw more and more images of migrant and refugee suffering in the news, but when I saw families in Europe with signs welcoming refugees, standing by the roadside with food and water. What’s moved me most are the images and stories of everyday people not waiting for government policy, but choosing love and taking action.
It’s not just a challenge for Europe, of course. As a human rights activist working with migrant communities in the United States, I bear witness to human suffering everyday.
I hear too many stories of immigrant women who labor as domestic workers, being underpaid, or not paid at all. I sit with undocumented women who are wracked with grief because they’re unable to be with their parents on their deathbeds, locked out by borders they can’t cross. I look in the eyes of women who leave their children in their countries of origin to put food in their mouths and send them to school, but struggle with the guilt and sadness of not being there to hold them when they cry.
How many beautiful children like Alan Kurdi have to die crossing our border, fear their parents being deported, or long for their parents’ embrace? How many before our compassion is triggered and transformed into action?
It’s a pressing human rights crisis. Yet in the United States, hateful anti-immigrant ideologues are pushing our public discourse about immigrants to new lows. With Donald Trump running for president and freely making dehumanizing remarks about the immigrant men, women, and children who call this country home, racism and xenophobia are getting passed off as political debate, rather than being challenged as hateful and harmful.
Of course, Europe has its own anti-immigrant extremists. Many right-wing politicians, such as Hungarian president Viktor Orban, have made anti-immigrant policies cornerstones of their platforms. And yet, in the face of widespread suffering, acts of compassion and kindness are inspiring another kind of politics.
As ordinary people act from a place of love and kindness, they’re calling on their elected leaders to do the same. Governments from Germany and Austria to Iceland and the United Kingdom have agreed to consider accepting more refugees amid an outpouring of popular support. Even in Hungary, which had closed its trains and bus stations to prevent migrants from making their way to more prosperous and welcoming European countries, the government consented to pick up walking migrants in buses and transport them to Austria. And Pope Francis, a global moral voice, has called on European parishes and monasteries to take in refugees, leading by example.
There’s no reason we can’t replicate that success in the United States — particularly on the eve of a visit from Pope Francis, who’s expected to advocate for immigrant rights. After all, the hardline rhetoric of xenophobic politicians isn’t actually representative of the prevailing American sentiment toward immigrants. Recent polling shows the vast majority of Americans — nearly three-quarters, in fact — support immigration reform with some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants in this country.
The refugee crisis we’re witnessing in Europe makes the need to open our hearts as bare and as urgent as it ever could be. It pushes us to reflect on our own immigration policy to make sure it’s one of compassion and not cruelty. Taking a cue from the ordinary Europeans who’ve opened their arms to refugees, how can we — as everyday people — set an example for our government, which has been unable or unwilling to enact humane policies?
Here’s one idea.
From September 15-23, I’ll be 1 of 100 women setting out to walk 100 miles from an immigration detention center in York, Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC in the days preceding Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States. We’ll be U.S. and foreign-born women, mothers, grandmothers, and women of faith, walking together with the intention of inspiring the American people and our politicians to recognize the human dignity of migrants and refugees.
Our hope is that the pope’s visit will help rekindle a politics of compassion in our nation. But it will require us, as everyday people, to take the first step.