People are basically the same the world over. Everybody wants the same things – to be happy, to be healthy, to be at least reasonably prosperous, and to be secure. They want friends, peace of mind, good family relationships, and hope that tomorrow is going to be even better than today. ~Zig Ziglar
“There! Go there!” the man barked, waving us to the back of a line that went on seemingly forever. We shuffled forward, dragging our rolling suitcases while trying not to drop our backpacks. We fell into line and waited. And waited. For half an hour then longer, in a line that wasn’t moving. I turned to chat with the woman behind me, but she didn’t speak English. She was laden with parcels and a squawking baby. A toddler with enormous liquid eyes held her hand, peering up at us. I smiled at him, and then the baby, trying to bridge the language barrier with a grin that implied, “Me too. Sometimes being a mom is just the worst, right?” She stepped in front of her son, blocking him from view. She averted her gaze, not wanting to interact.
I looked up and down the endless train of humanity, noticing that everyone looked like that. Hungry. Impatient. Baffled and exhausted. But there was something else. They also looked, in equal measure, hopeful, wary and positively terrified.
The air was toxic, the nervous energy a heavy blanket around our shoulders. A man in uniform passed by. “Excuse me”, I said, flashing my brightest smile. He stopped and scrutinized me, then my husband and daughter. “Are you United States citizens?” We nodded. “Come with me”, he unlatched the retractable stanchion to provide egress. “You’re in the wrong line”.
The four of us wound our way through U.S. Customs at the Atlanta airport. As we were shuttled into a short line being serviced by a smiling Customs agent, I glanced back at the woman, locking eyes. I smiled, silently wishing her good luck. She slid her gaze from mine, fear and distrust evident.
I felt privileged, and not in a good way. Why did that uniformed agent stop for me, what did he see? I’m guessing he saw a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing expensive athleisure wear and toting nice luggage. Or perhaps it was my orthodontia, a perfect smile that conveyed my certainty that I belonged. As I glanced at the giant portrait of our president welcoming me to Atlanta, I understood why that mother was anxious. Would she be welcomed as well? Or would she be detained, flagged and sent to a back room for questioning? Or simply turned away, denied entry at the finish line of her marathon? She must have felt powerless, an unsure pioneer at the whim of fate.
We’ve been told it’s all necessary, crucial security measures in response to terrorism. That it isn’t racist or petty or hateful. But we know in our hearts that none of this is true. We remember that our storied history was written by immigrants seeking refuge, save for the Native Americans (who were here already) and the African Americans (who were forced here on slaving vessels). Powerless but hopeful is a deeply woven thread in our cultural tapestry.
Yet despite a climate of suspicion and persecution, she was seeking the Promised Land. She journeyed, as do we all, for safety. To be reunited with loved ones. For freedom. For more opportunity. To escape poverty or oppression, ever hopeful that happiness might lie on the other side of the retractable belt. The same aspirations the Puritans had, the very reasons they fled England in search of a better life in the New World. The human heart is a wandering heart, with a drive to search for its true home.
She was sent to me that night, a spiritual assignment to be more grateful for the freedom I too often take for granted. To stand up for the powerless and speak for those without a voice. To remember that the stanchion is an illusion, that all borders are illusion. They only appear to separate us. She and I are the same.