(Disclaimer: I use gender-binary language in this post because I am not well versed in writing in gender-neutral language. I would love for someone to email me privately with how to make this more gender-neutral!)
As I mentioned in the previous post about my trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua with AJWS, one of the most powerful aspects of the trip for me was the opportunity to re-see, in person, the world in which my academic mind lives while my body is stuck in New York. I often find myself trying to explain to people how my hodge-podge of post-college experiences led me to pursue a master’s degree in international development. Slowly, I have cobbled together a fairly cohesive story: I spent two years working with migrants who told me stories of leaving their homes because they couldn’t make a life where they were, and then spent a year living in a place (Nepal) that people were leaving in the tens of thousands. I not only saw but also personally lived through the discomforts, frustrations and sometimes true suffering that drives young people to seek a better life abroad. It made sense to me, after three years and a few Jeffrey Sachs books, to try to improve living conditions in the developing world instead of trying to change law and public opinion in the developed world. I literally talked to tens of thousands of migrants through my work in DC, Israel and Nepal, and almost all told me of their longing for home, but a home in which they could access their needs and rights for safety, shelter, education, opportunities—all the things I love to write and talk about.
Yet in El Salvador and Nicaragua, my assurance of my own worldview was, to my surprise, taken for a ride (I don’t know why this surprised me, because it is precisely my love of the unexpected that makes me love traveling, but like any other human, I had somehow convinced myself that my worldview must be correct). At each of the organizations we visited, we heard from young people about the abuses they face as LGBTQ citizens in their own countries. We heard about the discrimination they face on the streets and in official settings like schools, police stations and hospitals. Several organizations talked to us about friends or “comrades” who had been killed because of how they dressed or who they loved. I had worked on asylum cases with a few LGBTQ men and women from Central America while I was working in Washington, so I was not surprised to hear about the widespread persecution and violence against these populations.
At the end of every presentation, we were given a chance to break up in to groups of a few Global Justice Fellows and a few members of the organization we were visiting and to ask some questions. In every group, I asked the members of the community if they had ever thought about seeking asylum in the US, Canada or Europe, where they would be able to live in (relative) safety. Overwhelmingly, the people we met with answered me with a resounding “no”. A few acknowledged considering the idea of leaving, or “fleeing”, for a brief moment, but none wanted to leave his or her home. They were committed to their home countries, their communities and the struggle they were engaged in to garner more respect for their rights as people in the place they lived. While there may be some element of selection bias in these answers—we were meeting with activist organizations, after all—the overwhelming response I got was that people wanted to stay home even though it was tough and dedicate their lives to making home fit better.
This is certainly not what I anticipated when I asked my question at the first few organizations. I didn’t know whether to expect them to have considered migration, but my assumption was that it would be an attractive option. From my immigration law perspective, people suffering hardship would naturally want to seek out a life in a country with less hardship. But, as I should know by know, the human spirit is stronger than that. Many people, when faced with a challenge, don’t back down, they step up. I consider myself one of those people. So why couldn’t I see this? Why was my instinct to expect that everyone would want to come live like me, and not live like him or herself, only better?
I have no answer, other than I think it’s human instinct to be self-centered in our worldview. And, no matter how much we dedicate ourselves to thinking about others, we cannot think FOR others. This is a hard notion to reconcile with my schoolwork. As I learn to plan, budget and monitor national policies, evaluate statistical trends and make predictions about them, and work with multilateral international organizations, I have to remember that the ground under my feet is also always moving. Econometrics is powerful, but people are more powerful, and unpredictable. Predictions and trends and statistics mean nothing in the event of an unforeseen shock like a popular movement or uprising. Grassroots actions both make an impact on people just as national and sub-national policy do, yet neither can work without the other. Laws are powerless if no one respects them, but people are in danger if they confront the law. As with everything in life, it is hard to hold both this and that in mind when this and that may disagree. But we can’t afford to drop either.
If you want to hold on to some piece of this fight, check out some of the work AJWS is doing as part of the We Believe campaign. There are tons of ways to get involved, from writing letters to Congress, signing petitions, joining local action teams, donating money or sharing a post on social media.
Read, think, discuss, travel. Repeat.