I took this picture in Damascus, Syria, in the summer of 2001:
On the day after the President of the United States issued an executive order to ban Syrian immigrants indefinitely, this image has been hovering in my mind.
In 2001, while traveling in their country, Syrians treated me with a mixture of surprise (“You are American, you could travel anywhere, why do you choose here?”) and what I can only describe as Hollywood glamour. It was respect for the wealth, style, and openness that America represented internationally. There is this half-joke among American backpackers that they should put a Canadian flag on their pack so that no one gives them a hard time about U.S. Foreign policy. But in 2001, at the end of the Clinton years, the overall feeling I got traveling through the Middle East was a sort of grudging respect, and more than that, envy. The American dream was alive and well, worldwide.
In the sixteen years since then, we invaded a neighboring country and destabilized the region, bombed their country, and now have shut them out of our country entirely.
I wonder where this bicycle owner is today. He could be one of the many Syrians holding a visa that, even after arriving in the US, is being sent back. Maybe he got lucky and is one of the 1.4 million refugees that were welcomed by Germany in the last two years (if the US accepted refugees at the same rate, that’d be over five million refugees). Maybe he got unlucky and is one of the 400,000 civilians killed in the Syrian civil war. Most likely he is still in Damascus, trying to make do with less and just stay alive.
Wherever he is, it seems very likely he is no longer flying an American flag on his bicycle.
Personally, I’m always aware that I arrived here from immigrants. I don’t have writings to say exactly what motivated Thomas Morris and Anne McGovern to separately leave Ireland around 1910. It was after the big potato famines; but Ireland was still a mess at the time, governed and oppressed by Britain and economically stagnant, so it’s fairly easy to infer some reasons. I don’t know how actively America welcomed them, but it certainly let them in. They they met each other in New Jersey, got married, prospered. My father was born in 1928. Here I am.
Immigration is complex. Certainly not every person who wants to live in the United States can live here. Even as I admire the fact that Germany has admitted over 1% of its population in refugees in the last two years (!), I worry that assimilation will be difficult or result in political blowback; it’s like watching someone you admire trying to scale a mountain that has never been climbed before. However it goes, I admire them for trying.
On the other extreme is this executive order. First, it is very abrupt, and in that abruptness is cruelty. There are people who have been given the greatest hope — a visa to the United States — and told to turn around and go back to somewhere else.
Second, it is immoral for a country in the position of power that the United States has — largest GDP, largest military, whatever ranking you might want to choose — to choose to turn its back on what is probably the largest humanitarian crisis going on in the world. Perhaps admitting three million refugees is too much; certainly the 12,587 Syrians that were admitted in 2016 seems low; setting a target at or near zero is reprehensible.
Third, the religious element is troublesome: written to prioritize Christians, the executive order, continuing to frame the world order in terms of a “Clash of Civilization” between Islam and Christianity. This is a prophecy that will only be fulfilled if we believe it. Christianity is supposed to be the religion and the morality of taking care of the weak and oppressed:
“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33–34 and 24:22.
Sure, there are those paint the United States in broad strokes as the great evil, but it is a tiny minority of Islam, the crazies. We have crazies too. The answer to is not to paint in broad strokes as well and deem Islam a great evil, or to use national boundaries or religions as an indicator of a person’s worth. The answer is tolerance, acceptance, and taking care of humans that need taking care of. It is of recognizing gray area and subtlety and taking each person evaluating them as an individual. That is how you make the United States the kind of country where everyone worldwide wants its flag on their bike.
 The Guardian, Germany expects up to 300,000 refugees in 2016, official says
 Wikipedia, Casualities of the Syrian Civil War
If you want to put more eyeballs on this essay, consider giving it a green heart. More my pictures of Syria 2001 here.