There Is No Such Thing as "Other People's Children"

There Is No Such Thing as "Other People's Children"

You may have noticed I didn't post last week. The truth is, I couldn't. I was too wounded, completely crushed by grief.

"Grief" might sound like a strong word for what I was going through, for what so many Americans were going through, but I assure you it was real, and tangible, and agonizing.

When I was a child, I read about the Holocaust. I read "The Cage" and "To Life," "The Devil's Arithmetic,"  and "Number the Stars." I devoured these books, but it wasn't just these stories-- either true or based in truth-- that captured me so entirely. I read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," the Addy "American Girl" books, about the legacy of racism in this country. I read "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," about the aftermath of nuclear warfare. I read about the Salem Witch Trials. I read true crime and memoir and historical fiction about the worst atrocities humanity has ever inflicted upon itself. As I grew into an adult, my book preferences didn't change much. "Baba Yar," and "The Painted Bird," "Night," and "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," by survivors of the Holocaust, in no way toned down for children. I read "Black Boy" and "Native Son," "Black No More" and "The Street," Harlem Rennaisance classics about racism and Jim Crow. I read "No No Boy," about the aftermath of Japanese internment and World War II.

When I read about human beings, suffering, I feel connected to their humanity, not distanced from it. When now, as an adult, I read a news story about a child ripped from their parents and trapped in a cage* where their captors do not speak their language, where there is no promise they will ever see their parents again, where they are likely to be raised by another family of another culture, and carry the trauma with them forever, I feel for them as deeply as I felt for Lois Lensky's interpretation of Mary Jemison. When, on my daughter's birthday I imagined how many of the 2,300 children detained without their families must be celebrating their own birthdays behind bars, I remembered the tenderness and misery of  "To Tommy, For His Third Birthday in Theresienstadt," written by a father for his son inside the ghetto, and trying to find joy despite the bleakness, and loneliness. When I read a story in the news about children being sent to live in a concentration camp** in blistering heat under armed guard, my heart breaks for them as much as for eleven-year-old Olaudah, kidnapped and sold into slavery. 

I am not naive enough to think for a minute that this is not what America is. That this is not how the world works. I have known since childhood what the world looks like if you peel back the scabs over its wounds. I have never had the privilege of being able to ignore it.

And even more than that, I cannot live with myself when I can do nothing to help a child.

My own family knows this. When my husband has sometimes come into a room and found me weeping over a magazine article, his first question usually is, "There's an orphan, isn't there?" My six-year-old gets her kicks sneaking into a room behind me and singing the finale of Hamilton-- "I established the first private orphanage in New York City..." I weep every time. It has always been my intention to adopt, to foster, although life frequently seems to make other plans for me.

When I read the stories of refugees, the book that most comes to mind for me is "Letters From Rifka," about a Jewish family fleeing Russian pogroms in the antisemitic buildup to the Holocaust. Rifka writes letters to herself (it is only as an adult I have been able to understand this was modeled after Anne Frank, and the real children who documented their own execution), about her plight as she attempts to escape oppression and find safety in America. Like the children at our own border, she is separated from her parents. But this is not out of cruelty, it is from necessity-- like so many unaccompanied minors who arrive on America's doorstep. And most important of all, the only thing Rifka's family has to do to become Americans is to have their names recorded in Ellis Island. No years and years of immigration court, no extended interviews to prove the persecution they fled, none of that.

All they had to do was abandon everything they ever knew and loved to brave a journey of thousands of miles, which they had no way of knowing they would survive, but with the certainty that staying was worse.

I am not exaggerating when I say I am grieving for these families, for these children. And although Trump has put a stop to the removal of children from their parents, there is no plan to return children who were already taken. In fact, many of their parents have already been sent away, returned to their country of origin and the dangers they faced there, unable to find each other. These children are being sent into American foster care, their parents are being stripped of their parental rights, and they will, if they're lucky, be adopted by American families who will have to contend with this trauma.

This is a tragedy I can scarcely find words to speak about. An atrocity. One that is not exactly new, but which has been ramped up by orders of magnitude that are scarcely conceivable. And the executive order Trump signed is no better. While it stops families from being separated immediately, they can then be torn apart twenty days later, or held in jail indefinitely***.

A few days ago, I saw a picture that stopped me in my tracks. It's a picture of the mother of the little girl we all have come to associate with this crisis, the toddler in pink. In this photo, however, she is with her mother. Her mother is looking away from the camera, and her face is full of quiet emotion.


There is so much weariness here, so much resignation, and also fear. It is a face I have seen in the pictures of many mothers in her situation, desperation and a hope that is only driven by love.

It is the same look in the face of a mother, an undocumented immigrant who sought sanctuary with her child in a church a few years ago, terrified of deportation to the country she had fled for the safety of her children.


It's the same look I saw once in the photograph of another refugee, a woman fleeing Syria for Turkey with her children, also facing deportation, also facing a return to a lawless hellscape that threatened the death of the child in her arms.


There is a detachment in this expression, because you have to detach in order to hold on. You have to hold on. You have to hold onto everything that matters, and the only thing that matters is that you have your children, and they are safe.

I will never understand how anyone could fail to see this.

As you look over the faces of these mothers, I want you to consider one more. This mother became an American icon almost a century ago, this mother who also fled hardship and ruin and death, in order to give her children a better life, no matter how many challenges or dangers she faced. This woman was also persecuted for seeking a better life. She also carried her child over borders and across wilderness. Only all within this same, massive country.


That woman, known to history as "Migrant Mother," is as much a part of the fabric of America as all of our atrocities, all of our humiliations, and all of our greatness. But were she "Immigrant Mother" instead, today she would be thrown in jail, and those children draped about her, the children she has crossed hundreds of miles to provide for and to keep safe, those children will be thrown into jail with her, then taken away, and she might never see them again.

I have been grieving because I would do anything for my children to keep them safe, and there is no such thing as "other people's children," as Fox News might have you believe. There are children, and there is our moral imperative to help, to protect, to provide.

If I could, I would welcome all the mothers into my country, all the parents, all the children. Any parent willing to give up everything in order to protect their child is somebody I would like to sit down with, to learn from, to feed and shelter and offer a moment of peace. Any child who is hungry, who is frightened, is a child I want to hold close and promise them and mean it that I will make it better, that I will do something to make it better.

Maybe the books did this to me. Maybe I was always this way. Maybe once upon a time, all of us were children, and all of us knew intrinsically that children should not fear death by war or starvation or violence, and we all grew up, and some of us forgot that the other children did not get to have what we had, and did not get to become adults in the security of a country that accepted them and protected them. Maybe inside we are all children still, and if we allow our child hearts to see what is being done to other children, they will break beyond repair.

Whatever it is, I am continuing to grieve for the children, for the families, and whatever my inability to speak last week might imply, I will not be silent.



*"cage" here means an enclosure made of chain-link fence, such as you would find at a dog pound and where it might then be referred to as a "cage"
**"concentration camp" here means Trump Hotel
***"indefinitely" means we could be looking at Guantanamo for migrant families

Read more about taking care of children here: Twice A Week, the NRA Reaps Our Children

Read my most recent post here: Names and Nightmares

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