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VM Voices: The madman next door

VM Voices: The madman next door

I was born with brown skin and at times that has rendered me the target of discrimination. But I wouldn’t trade it for the kind of privilege that absolves me of humanity.

When I was born in Kenya in 1978, a madman lived next door. He was deranged, delusional and dangerous, and he called himself Conquerer of the British Empire. He was Idi Amin Dada, the President of Uganda from 1971-1979 and under his rule, it is estimated that 100,000 to 500,000 people were killed. Idi Amin (who also gave himself the title His Excellency President for Life) began his reign of terror with an expulsion of Asian Ugandans in 1972, an ethnic cleansing; among those were my husband’s family and my newlywed aunt and uncle.

The ripple effect of the fear and unrest crossed the border into Kenya, where Asian Kenyans were already second-class citizens, unable to obtain licenses for certain businesses and restricted from buying prime real estate after Kenya’s independence. Less than a decade before Idi Amin came into power and rocked East Africa with his venomous ideas, many Asian Kenyans who held British passports fled the country to England after being told that their right to enter England could be terminated at any time. Their only hope to make a life lay outside a country that had been their home for generations, as their opportunities to continue owning their own shops soon became illegal, and jobs were only allowed to ‘foreigners’ until a Kenyan national came along.

When I was born in Kenya in 1978, my parents had to think about our safety and equality in an environment that was politically charged against people of our ethnicity. So we left.

We were lucky, though. We had the time and resources to put our papers in order, to understand the process. There was unrest in the air but not bullets at our backs.

My family now lives in Canada as Canadian citizens. And again, a madman lives next door.

For weeks, I’ve been following the news coming from the southern US where brown families are arriving at the border, fleeing gang violence, injustice, and persecution in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. What rips the heart from my chest is more than their reasons for leaving; I’m broken by what is happening upon their arrival to a country from which they are seeking asylum. While President Trump recently signed an Executive Order that keeps detained families together, weeks of separating children from parents has resulted in over 3,000 children being held without their parents. There is no plan in place to reunite these families. It’s a humanitarian crisis – and many Americans are trying to justify it by hiding behind the law and the Bible.

The zero-tolerance policy cooked up by the President and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions states that anyone crossing the border without a visa, even those seeking asylum, even those crossing at checkpoints, is committing a crime. According to the law, however, seeking asylum in the United States is not illegal. In fact, according to 8 USC 1158, one does not need to even enter at a designated checkpoint to apply for asylum. The trolls on the internet and the politicians waving legality around in the air fail to understand or acknowledge that.

Even if this was a question of law, not all laws are humane or just. The Nazis were obeying and enforcing the law. Hitler, like Trump, created the perfect storm that allowed such harrowing laws to be carried out.

Am I surprised? No.

President Trump fuelled an extremely toxic environment way before he threw children in detention centres with his zero-tolerance policy. His entire campaign was built on ‘making America great’ again. Idi Amin wanted the same for Uganda, Hitler the same for Germany. What this phrase actually means is he wants America to belong to a certain group of people. Everyone else is a threat. His division of ‘us and them’ was perfectly executed by painting a picture of good and evil. He used language that created fear, he gave permission to those with racist and bigoted views to express them – let’s not forget how he not only failed to condemn the Charlottesville rally but named the offenders good people – he planted dangerous and delusional ideas in America’s soil, and this most recent crime against humanity at the borders is just one of the ugly growths that have sprung forth.

When we see Jews as rats (Hitler’s campaign) and brown people as terrorists, rapists, job-stealers, drug-dealers (did I miss any of Trump’s words?), it is easier to treat them as less than, to pretend that they don’t feel pain, to justify horrific treatment.

When we see ‘them’ as not like ‘us’ then we don’t see baby Andrea who was born en route from Honduras as her mom fled the drug cartel. We don’t understand why parents would ‘put their kids in danger’ by travelling precariously from country to country. We don’t understand that if we had the guts and courage these people have, we would do the same damn thing if we had to.

Being able to dismiss these people is a privilege I just don’t understand. It’s a way of thinking that lives so far outside of me that I can’t even wrap my head around it. I was born with brown skin and at times that has rendered me the target of discrimination. But I wouldn’t trade it for the kind of privilege that absolves me of humanity. That kind of privilege comes at a cost. It is a deep cost to the families trying to find a safe place to land but it’s also a cost to those who wield it.

I only have to go back one generation in my family to see parents seeking a safer, better life for their children. But this story is not mine alone. It is the story of so many people in America, even if it goes further back 2, 3 or 4 generations.

I’d like to believe that the perfect storm has not drowned out that kind of history. It is a sad and dangerous thing to lose that lens through which we see ourselves in human beings looking for refuge.

Guest post by Taslim Jaffer – VM Top 30 blogger, writer, writing instructor, mom of three. Her words can be found at


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