Memorial Day: The Heartbreaking Convergence of Freedom and Fear

by Humera Afridi

6a01bb08d6f655970d01b8d1ef6b5c970c-800wiMere steps from Castle Clinton in Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan, stands a striking bronze sculpture titled, The Immigrants. Created in 1973 by the Spanish sculptor Luis Sanguino, it portrays a group of individuals who have undertaken an arduous voyage. Their gripping expressions and postures tell a story of endurance—borne with patience and prayer; kindled by hope for a life of dignity, free of fear, whose nimbus-like promise will surely unfurl in this new world where they have disembarked.

Amid the deep-green lawns, beds of blooming tulips, and the sunny melodies of street jazz, the bronze figures beckoned. I spotted them on my lunch break, a fortnight or so before Memorial Day. Their raw emotions and the naked display of the human spirit expressed in all its earnestness caught me by surprise. Here in plain sight was a visual testimony to the search for sanctuary—a struggle that is painfully alive in a world beset by wars, but also, immediate and close to home, visceral in the lives of many thousands of immigrants in America who having found refuge here, nevertheless, now tragically live in fear of being deported and separated from their families.

A figure kneels, bare-chested with head thrown back, arms spread wide, broken chain-links dangling from fingers; another clasps both hands in fervent prayer, gaze directed heavenward. Disconcertingly candid and telling is the stance of one at the front of the line, who crouches, with a hand outstretched—surely symbolic of the labor of immigrants, and former slaves, upon whose foundation this nation is built. In the middle of the group stands a robed male of dignified bearing, arm held across his breast in a gesture of allegiance? of self-determination?

6a01bb08d6f655970d01b8d1ef6b48970c-800wiThe figures are compelling, poignantly located near the circular sandstone fort of Castle Clinton, the former Emigrant Landing Depot—the nation's first ever immigrant processing center where anywhere between eight to twelve million immigrants entered the Unites States in the nineteenth century. Glancing over the heads of The Immigrants, one has a clear view of the Statue of Liberty rising over the steely Hudson. Lady Liberty, hallowed “Mother of Exiles,” from whose “beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome…” The poet Emma Lazarus memorialized the Statue of Liberty's embracing welcome in “The Colossus:”

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If once on approaching these shores, the mercy and beneficence of these word elicited tears of gratitude and relief, today remembering these lines against a backdrop of fear-ridden rhetoric and anti-immigrant vitriol, one weeps with despair at their growing hollowness, at the realization that the “golden door” is starting to resemble more and more the metal gate of a jail cell.

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous Four Freedoms speech. The world was at war, he declared. And in order to safeguard America's cherished value of Liberty, the dictators and tyrants abroad had to be defeated. In fact, the outcome of the war would determine if America's ideal of freedom would prevail over tyranny. The expansion of liberty in the world, Roosevelt insisted, was the best hope for peace at home. He envisioned Americans to be at the vanguard of establishing freedom and democracy, first at home, and then enabling their fruition in the world beyond.

“In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” Roosevelt said. “The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want…. The fourth is freedom from fear…”

6a01bb08d6f655970d01b8d1ef6b4f970c-800wiStanding in historic Battery Park—former “golden gate” to the new world, and, at the same time, an area of defense equipped with artillery batteries to protect the settlement—I suddenly understood that freedom and fear breathe side by side. They share the same topography. They are tribal cousins in feudal rivalry. Caught in a tensile dance, a forever friction, freedom and fear are creative-exploitative; they are neighbors and enemies; they are light and shadow, sharing a volatile locus. To remain at peace Americans needed to prepare to fight, said Roosevelt. To secure Liberty, armaments and defenses had to be built. It was a cruel paradox.

Thirteen months after Franklin D. Roosevelt's eloquent speech—in which he impressed upon Americans the right of every human being to be free of fear—America, in a sinister, Kafka-esque turn of events, turned on its own citizens, and systematically destroyed dreams and families, homes and livelihoods. It was Roosevelt himself who signed the evacuation order for Japanese Americans to be rounded up and interned in concentration camps. Two thirds of the 127,000 imprisoned were American born, some were even veterans of the United States Army in World War I, many had never set foot in Japan. They resembled the enemy, they were of Japanese ancestry. That was their crime. And no one who resembled the enemy was exempt.

At the beginning of Julie Otsuka's harrowing novella, When the Emperor was Divine, we witness the movements of a woman who remains nameless as she works with the quiet, concentrated energy of one upon whom a great violence has been enacted. She is a woman without a husband now—we learn that the FBI came for him around midnight a few weeks earlier, took him away in his bathrobe and bedroom slippers and locked him away in detention, in a treeless wilderness, where he sleeps on a metal cot. She is a woman with children and pets to care for. We sense the love coiled tight in her heart. The weight of care in this new reality, and the work of love, were she to ponder these now and allow them to unravel, she might collapse. She can't afford that luxury. She has seen the notices all over town for evacuation orders.

She must act. She must pack. She is a good citizen, an obedient citizen, a loving mother. So, she feeds the old, half-blind dog a delicious meal of rice balls, egg and salmon; she rubs his stomach, talks to him, walks him over to a tree, ties him with a piece of twine and bludgeons him to death. Then she buries him. She feeds her daughter's beloved parakeet before she lets it out of its cage, out of the window, and shoos it away to freedom. She packs her suitcase. She buries the silver in the garden. The children each have a small suitcase. That's all they're allowed to carry. A subdued, stifled, ominous quality pervades the narrative, creating a haunting evocation of the living death experienced by those who left home to be quarantined on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

6a01bb08d6f655970d01bb09091ae5970d-800wiAfter the war, the mother and her two children return to a world that looks upon them with suspicion, with a mistrust and hate that the children internalize. “We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy. We were guilty now… No good… A dangerous people who could never be trusted again… On the street we tried to avoid our own reflections wherever we could. We turned away from shiny surfaces and storefront windows. We ignored the passing glances of strangers. What kind of “ese” are you, Japanese or Chinese?”

They were told it was a matter of military necessity, the camps were an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty. It was all in the interest of national security.

Fear, every politician knows, is a powerful political tool. And, in the current electoral campaign in the United States, it is fear, once again, that is being wielded—in the guise of Liberty. Ah, the seductive power of Liberty! Liberty governs the quality of our material lives; it fires our spiritual ideals; our patriotism. Liberty it is that ensures happiness. And to pursue happiness, we must attain freedom from fear, and to do so we must eliminate the enemy. What happens, though, when you resemble the enemy?

For Muslims in America, it feels very much like history is repeating itself. Muslim Americans are experiencing and feeling anti-Muslim bigotry at unprecedented levels, more so than in the aftermath of 9/11. Community organizations who are at the forefront of confronting islamophobia agree that discrimination is heightened by government and state policies that view Muslims through a national security lens. Fahd Ahmed, Executive Director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a working class and youth-based organization in New York City, states: “Nowhere in history will you find a time of war creating an environment for open-minded and progressive thinking around inclusion and community-building. Wars inherently create suspicion, distrust, division and the environment for these ideas.” Fifteen years of war have enabled the atmosphere for politicians to openly and vehemently denigrate Muslims and immigrants.

Nationally there are 3.3 million Muslims, who make up just under one percent of the population of the United States. One out of five Muslims in the U.S. lives in the New York region. Muslim youth are feeing the burden of representing their community. They're feeling the pressure to be politicized, to know more than their peers, to be representative and knowledgeable about Islam and the politics of the region—because they find themselves under scrutiny, and asked such questions by teachers and peers. Muslim youth are experiencing a critical need to define their identity. Many are fearful to speak another language lest they be perceived as not assimilating. Girls in hijab want to be seen beyond the barrier of this visual marker. Many are experiencing the challenges of poverty but feel isolated and marginalized. They want to express themselves and be heard. They want to counter the mainstream narrative, the biased slant of the media. A great number of Muslim youth who do not have a pre-9/11 reference point feel unwelcome in America. Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, believes if more Americans don't speak out, if policy makers and government don't provide sufficient support, the country will fail its young American Muslims.

6a01bb08d6f655970d01b8d1ef6b44970c-800wi“We have a firm belief that institutional forms of violence actually create the platform for social violence,” emphasizes Fahd Ahmed. He lists racial profiling, surveillance, anti-immigration policies, the targeting of South Asian and Arab students by school safety officers; deportations and detentions as sending a message—there's something suspicious about these communities, something wrong.

In her book We Too Sing America, lawyer and activist Deepa Iyer writes: “Post 9/11 policies and the narratives used to justify them bear an eerie resemblance to those implemented during World War II. Their ultimate ineffectiveness … (in) fighting terrorism generate the inquiry: are these policies, in effect, ways to purge America of its ‘undesirable' immigrants?” Iyer advises that the country assess the impact of its policies on immigrant communities. “The state cannot both welcome immigrants and enforce the civil rights of people of color while simultaneously engaging in practices that justify wholesale profiling of these same communities. Instead, the state must hold itself to the highest civil and human rights standards at all times, especially during times of significant national turmoil. Otherwise, we risk losing our nation's core values and compromising the ideals that draw so many immigrants to America.”

Today, it is Memorial Day, a United States federal holiday commemorating all those who've lost their lives while serving in the armed forces. I think of the Muslim American women and men who are currently serving the United States military. To be oriented wholly by your conviction in the cause of Liberty, where faith and family and cultural roots and ancestry come second, is truly laudable. I can't celebrate Memorial Day without thinking of Noor Inayat Khan, the first woman wireless operator parachuted into Nazi-occupied France in World War II. As a Sufi, Noor believed in nonviolence, but she also believed in the right to freedom and felt it was a spiritual and moral duty to fight the horrors of fascism. The daughter of an Indian mystic and American mother, Noor was born in Moscow and grew up in France. During her interviews with the British War Office, they asked questions and contemplated her allegiance. Could they trust this brown-skinned ‘Indian' woman? India was restless for independence. If Noor felt so strongly against occupying forces what did she truly feel about Britain?

In truth, Noor was as French as could be and turned out to be extremely valuable to the Special Operations Executive, the British espionage and sabotage organization, who recruited her. She worked for the Resistance in highly dangerous circumstances until she was betrayed and captured by the Nazis. Placed in solitary imprisonment for a year, she was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. There, through the course of a night she was tortured and beaten. In the early hours of September 13, 1944, she uttered her last word, Liberte!, right before she was shot. In 1946, Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery and in 1949 the George Cross.

For those who look like ‘the enemy,' but are, in truth, valued members of this nation, who gave and are giving of their lives, let's remember them today. Muslims have fought for the United States in all her major wars, including as far back as the Revolutionary War, serving in the Continental Army under George Washington. At Arlington National Cemetery there are graves of Muslim soldiers decorated with Purple Hearts who died fighting in Iraq. On the granite pylons of the East Coast Memorial in Battery Park—bearing in alphabetical order the names of WWII air and navy servicemen who lost their lives in the Atlantic Ocean during combat and who now “sleep in the American coastal water”—I discover Anees under the A's, Khoury in the list of names beginning with K. Assimilation of non-European immigrants in America has been far from smooth; it's easier for those who pass as White. I think of the spouses and the children of those who died in battle, who are left to fight the war of survival, with its wounds of loss and rupture. I wonder, too, how it must be to give all of yourself over—body, mind, heart and soul— to the cause of Liberty, to a nation that accepts your labor and your life, but still perceives you, your children, in essence, as other?

The Immigrants call me back. I visit again and again. There's something prophetic about the sculpture. The patina of vulnerability on these figures is real. It points to a crisis in America—one that can no longer remain hidden in the shadows, where vulnerable immigrants are suspect and mistreated in the name of Liberty. On this Memorial Day as we honor our lost brave, let us also remember the terrifying, late night knocks on the door, the families that are riven by the violence of discriminatory policies right here at home. And let us not forget Liberty, who awaits with her lightening-flame lamp beside the golden door.