You could say I lost my belief in our politicians. They all seemed like game show hosts to me. — “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” Sting
I. Empathy and the Iliad
I read an article this week, published four years ago in Scientific American, about how empathy had declined 40 percent among college students in the US since the 80s. The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research concluded that college students of the current generation were less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” The researchers didn’t know what to attribute this decline in empathy to, although according to yet another study sited in the same article, narcissism is on the rise. The article concluded that “the American personality is shifting in an ominous direction.”
When we listen to stories, and when we read, the consciousness of the listener/reader and the consciousness of the story meet in the wild place of the human imagination. In that place, the I is not only the I, she is Achilles as he drags Hector’s body around the castle walls in revenge for his best friend’s death; she is King Priam when he afterwards goes to retrieve his son’s body from his enemy and kisses “the terrible, man-slaying hands that had slain his many sons.” She is the victor’s and the vanquished’s rage and sorrows. She is more than herself and more than her own tribe or nation even.
II. Donald Trump, 1 Fact, 1 Newspaper Comment, 1 US Law
“A nation without borders is not a nation. The border is a disaster…people are pouring in. There must be a wall across the southern border. America will only be great as long as America remains a nation of laws.”— Donald Trump
“Illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades.” — Pew Research center
“I DON’T CARE WHERE THEY CAME FROM OR WHY THEY CAME HERE. IF THEY ARE HERE ILLEGALLY, THEY NEED TO GO ASAP!!!” —Anonymous Comment, Washington Post
“Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum in accordance.” — U.S. Code § 1158 – Asylum
III. 100,00 Stories
In the last six months I have been working on a digital oral history project documenting the stories of children who have fled violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and sought asylum in the US. I’ve been listening to the kids and also interviewing immigration attorneys, policy makers, teachers, gang experts and historians to try and understand the situation better both here and in Central America. The stories are ominous. As Elizabeth Kennedy, a regional expert told me when I spoke to her:
This is a refugee crisis; it is not just a humanitarian crisis. Children and families are leaving these countries because they don’t have state protection. And gangs and cartels have become far more powerful than what government exists. El Salvador is the second-deadliest country in the world, it is second only to Syria. Honduras is third-deadliest in the world, third only to Syria and El Salvador. That means that people in El Salvador and Honduras are more likely to be murdered than people in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Sudan: all these places that we recognize as warzones. Kids in El Salvador tell me things like, “I go to bed every night not knowing if I’ll wake up in the morning.”
More than 100,000 unaccompanied minors surrendered themselves to Border Patrol in the last year and a half seeking protection.
This is an excerpt from an interview with a 17 year old Salvadoran girl I spoke with last summer in Oakland, California:
My dad came here several years ago because the gangs threatened him repeatedly and they tried to kill him. He was afraid. Every neighborhood is controlled by one gang or another. We moved frequently after that, but they always found us. It was the same guys who had tried to kill my dad.
One day going to school after I got off the bus, a man in a car approached me. He told me to get in the car with him. I got really scared. I kept walking. He kept following me.
“Get in the car,” he said, “I know everything about you and your family and your father.”
The police told us they would give us protection, but they never did. Then gang members started showing up in front of our house and riding by on bicycles to see who was there. They “controlled” the house. Sooner or later they were going to kidnap me or kill me. I couldn’t sleep. I never went out or talked to anybody because of the constant fear. I was so afraid they would force me to be their “girlfriend.” Many young girls can’t do anything about it. And what happens is they are killed or raped or their bodies are left on the road. People don’t have any recourse. The whole country is the same everywhere. There’s no security or help, if you look for help there’s none.
As I continue work on this project, I keep thinking, and believing, that if we continue to hear each other’s stories, and to write stories for the world, that we might see each other better. That it is harder to demonize someone if you have walked in their shoes. That stories—small, beautiful, alchemical non-physical strings of words and breath—can have an impact. A small thing, but essential it seems to me. www.newamericanstoryproject.org