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Steinberg: Is the U.S. betraying who we are or representing it?

Caroline Brennan, working for Catholic Relief Services, speaks with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Women and children make up more than 70 percent of the Syrian refugee population. | Photo by Sam Tarling

Follow @neilsteinbergThe first word Caroline Brennan learned in Arabic was iidhlal — “humiliation.” She was visiting refugee camps in the Middle East.

“Apologizing that they didn’t have more to offer, which I would never expect,” said Brennan, emergency communications director for Catholic Relief Services. “They say, ‘This is who I am. Hospitality is part of my culture and you’re a guest here in this place.’ How people show themselves is a stunning thing. When you see it, against a backdrop of madness.”

I phoned her because I was curious how those in the refugee business are faring in the current political climate. We were talking about what refugees actually are like, as opposed to what frightened people who never met any imagine they are like.

“It was in 2011, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon,” said Brennan. “I was meeting this woman — the refugee camp was just a sea of women and children. She didn’t have anything, a makeshift tent, pieced together. She was reaching into the air, wanting to offer something. I felt like she was reaching for a tray of tea but into thin air. She ended up plucking a flower out of the ground, giving it to me. When you’re talking about loss, they’re not talking about a savings account. Not even a home. A deeper sense of loss. She was telling their story. Everyone wants to tell you about the house they had, the number of rooms they had, the garden they had. It’s so important to them that you understand: they had a life before; that this place they’re in doesn’t represent who they are.”

This place they’re in doesn’t represent who they are. There’s a lot of that going around.

Unless it does. Unless the current moment in America represents exactly who we are. Maybe Donald Trump did us a favor, puffing away the self-congratulatory mist that obscures our view of how America truly is and always has been. We don’t show pity toward the unfortunate; we show contempt or indifference.

OPINION

Follow @neilsteinbergWhat’s this been like, I asked her, seeing the people you want to help demonized instead?

“Oh gosh,” she said. “You just . . . you look at it, and feel it, personally.”

“Often we’re hearing about this crisis through the lens of policy, military, security,” continued Brennan. “From our perspective, these are issues that should be seen through the lens of humanity. I’ve been so fortunate to meet these families, get to know them, see what they feel, know what they are longing for.”

Is anyone listening?

“It pains me,” she said. “I know that if more people had the opportunity to talk with refugee families, to sit across the table, they would understand. Offering refuge to the most vulnerable people on our planet is part of who we are as a country and as a people. I don’t think people would question it if they had more exposure and an opportunity to meeting with these refugee families.”

You know that, huh? I wish I did. To me, she’s pounding on the barred door.

“In my work, we often meet people at their darkest moment,” she said. “Everything has been stripped away from them. Everything in their life is gone. Their sense of self, when there is nothing left. People show you who they are.”

Who are they?

“It’s so humbling. So filled with grace,” she said. “The hospitality in the Arab world, uprooted Iraqi families, that fled ISIS. The extent to which they try to show you hospitality. To offer me tea without a stove, a glass or utensils.”

Brennan said that history will judge us.

“How will this be looked upon in years to come?” she asked.

I suppose it’ll be added to all the other times when the world was in need and America went missing, our concern only for ourselves. Easier to wear a red baseball cap than to actually be great.

“We have experience helping refugees resettle,” she said. “It only enriches the country.”

So does science and health care, but those are getting the heave-ho too. Nobody throws away riches quite like a rich man.

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