In the same week we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., our biracial president cedes power to a man championed by white nationalists. I assumed the refugees I know who came here during Barack Obama’s presidency would be horrified. This, presumably, was not the America they expected. But while they’re scared, they’re far from despondent. They came to strive, and so they take the long view, believing, as King did, that the arc of history bends toward justice.
Many white liberals have gone from shock to grief to protest since the election, with the burning question, what do we do? But the African refugees I know through the resettlement nonprofit organization I work for are still living Obama’s vision of “Yes, we can!” They’re trying to make ends meet and pursuing every free educational opportunity: They’re enrolling their kids in Head Start and after-school programs. They’re working long hours and going to community college. This isn’t just the daily grind of living below the poverty line. For refugees who came from countries where you have to choose between having enough to eat and paying for a basic education, this is the daily work of their American Dream. It is their entry into the social contract; it is how you rise from struggle.
I’m reading King’s landmark 1963 speech with these refugees, who come to my workplace for help navigating the health-care system, the job market and the public education system. They remind me that the most vital line is not “I have a dream,” but “I still have a dream.”
Joseph first heard the speech as a student in Congo. “We used this against our president,” he told me. “After 50 years of independence, we have no equality, no justice, no freedom.” Joseph explained that discrimination and segregation aren’t only about race: In Congo, these tactics are used to agitate infighting between Congolese tribes. Joseph’s Sudanese neighbor Shihab comes from a country where slavery and ethnic cleansing are perpetrated by the state. The Arab Republic of Sudan massacres Africans in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile, who do not want the government to exploit their land and resources.
Joseph was in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, when Obama was elected in 2008. “No one slept,” he told us. When the results were announced about 5 a.m., everyone celebrated. Joseph said to himself, “King’s dream is accomplished.”
“What about now?” I asked. Joseph and Shihab came to the United States just months before the 2016 election. They, too, watched Donald Trump malign immigrants, women, blacks, and Muslims. Minorities in this country are still not entirely free.
Trump’s victory is painful, Joseph told me, “because the president of the United States is the president of the world.” Shihab added, “We got shocked. … Trump is a very aggressive man. But we don’t know what his policies will be.” They’re well aware that the United States was built with public institutions whose job is to protect our founding promise for all. Joseph read aloud the part in the speech when King speaks of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as a promissory note. “This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Shihab takes Trump’s victory in stride, perhaps because he comes from a country whose president is charged with three counts of genocide by the International Criminal Court. Shihab has seen mass graves, dug as a threat to people going to protests. Now he raises his kids in a land of million-woman marches. “I appreciate America,” he told me, “for giving us the opportunity for free education.” He’s waiting to hear if he’ll get financial aid for college. He told his 14-year-old daughter, “When I graduate, you can start.”
Later, I asked Joseph how he interprets the quote King and Obama have both used, about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. He wrote his response: “It is a spiritual concept for kindness, compassion, justice, altruism, and human behaviors for building a New World based [on] freedom, justice, and equality among people. We can’t give up just because some minority of people are against it or selfish.”
These pre-inauguration days, refugees have been helping me cope with the coming presidency. The day after the election, my colleagues and I were walking around stunned and bleary-eyed, in the place where we work to help refugees resettle in Connecticut. I said “I’m sorry” to two Sudanese moms who came to the food pantry. As Muslim refugees, they have much more to lose than I do over the next four years. But they’re the ones encouraging me, jolting me out of white liberal despondency. “Things will drive you crazy, drive you nervous, drive you depressed,” Amal said. “But you have to be hopeful.”
Some friends have told me that hope doesn’t feel right in the face of Trump’s America. But refugees help me know wholeheartedly what a mighty thing a little hope can be. I read King’s 1963 speech with Azhar and Amal, who told me her definition of a dream: “Something near to impossible,” she said. “To get it, you have to work very hard.” They both had to work hard to come here: All refugees have to make an airtight case to be admitted to the United States. They have to tell their persecution stories over and over, to prove that they can’t go back to their home countries. They go through interrogations and background checks by multiple national security agencies. Only a fraction of 1 percent of the world’s 21 million refugees get resettled to the United States.
I asked why their Sudanese refugee community isn’t as upset about Trump’s presidency as many liberal Americans. “There are rules here,” Amal told me. There is Congress, and courts.
“Justice is here,” Azhar’s husband said. “But sometimes people misuse the law.” He told us about watching the police shootings in Dallas and Chicago on social media. He thinks the police have the right to shoot, but “not in the head or the heart.” He told us how afraid he gets when he sees a police car. Azhar and Amal commiserate over how much their husbands worry. “You have to focus on the good things in your life,” Azhar said.
“Even if it is like a match,” Amal said, pressing her thumb to her finger to show me how small the good can be, a spark in dark times. “It’s a long way. You have to be patient. Nothing is impossible.”
The refugee experience is about working hard and waiting for something that’s almost impossible to achieve. This is the expertise and the gift refugees bring to the United States. This is what we need to approach King’s dream, to help the arc of our time bend toward justice.