My film aims to remind Americans in this high-stakes moment of that dark past so we can learn from it. Many of the children who grew up in those camps are still with us today. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who is featured in the film, remembers seeing his neighbors barge into his home to take his family’s belongings. He grew up incarcerated at Amache Concentration Camp in Colorado. Off-camera, other camp survivors talked about “gaman” — a Japanese word for “perseverance” — the dignity to be better than their government, to survive the camps and return to be decent citizens. The children who were able to write letters to the outside world wrote with heartbreaking sincerity. The final part of the film features a letter from Louise Ogawa, who was 11 years old when she wrote:
“We all know that there are people all over the world who hate certain races and just can’t help it. But I’m sure when this war is over, there will be no racial discrimination, and we won’t have to doubt for a minute the great principles of democracy.”
We teach our children to believe in this country’s promise and their role in it. But when hate overtakes our debates, it’s children who suffer the most. It’s when they’re taught at an early age that the American promise might not include them. The Muslim children in this film, ages 7 to 13, know that there are those in this country who don’t want them here. Their families know that even more so. But their insistence on participating said everything they needed to say.
These are the stakes for Muslims in the United States: Throughout the Republican presidential primary, multiple candidates called for “patrolling” Muslim neighborhoods or banning Muslims from entering the country. A Democratic mayor even used the incarceration of Japanese Americans to justify rejecting Syrian refugees. Online, and indeed even in comments on social media since my video was released, there are many who justify Japanese American incarceration, and call for the same to be done to the Muslim community. How we respond to the siren calls of fear is a test for every American.
This is the third short film I’ve produced in the past year about the lives of people of color today. The first one was about Black Lives Matter; the second was about the deportation of immigrants. At the heart of each film are children. Because whatever anyone’s definition of America is, we are all human beings trying to do right by our families. We all want to believe that our children can live in a better nation than we do.
Robert Kennedy said during another time of hatred and violence that “those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
Those words ring even more true today.
The film will be on display at Smithsonian’s upcoming exhibit, “Crosslines: a culture lab on intersectionality,” on May 28 and 29 at the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building in Washington.