One day when I was 10, my mom backed out of the driveway and accidentally ran over our cat. My little brother and sister were with us in the car, and we felt it. I had named him KITT after the car in the TV show “Knight Rider” because he was still a kitten. It used to make me feel sick when I thought about what happened.
In the early ’90s, my mom was still picking me up from school in the same 1977 faux-wood-paneled station wagon haunted by KITT’s ghost. But by that point, I was more worried that my classmates would think we were poor because of our ugly old car.
You now know the extent of trauma and economic hardship I’ve faced in my life. Because many other Americans could tell similar stories, I suspect that’s why few of us can really relate to the images we have seen for months of desperate families fleeing violence in Syria.
Can you imagine what many of these refugees have gone through?
One day when I was 10, men with guns broke into our house and killed my dad.
One night, the rest of my family drowned in the Mediterranean.
One morning, we tried to get on a train, and the police hit us with sticks.
Of course, if we replaced the words “drowned in the Mediterranean” with “died in the desert,” we could be talking about families fleeing violence in Honduras or Mexico.
Poverty can be just as violent.
One day when I was 10, my mom died in childbirth, and I had to quit school to take care of my siblings.
One morning, my dad told us he needed to go north to find work to support us. One day he came back looking more like my grandfather than my dad after years of working all day in the sun to keep food on our table.
It’s difficult to imagine getting up each morning to face a life like that. What did I do to deserve the relatively easy life I have? Nothing. There but for the grace of God go I. We just got lucky.
We say that all men being created equal is self-evident. But for me, making decisions from that basic principle becomes a lot easier when we are looking at the images across the ocean – of an entire truck piled full of people who died trying to get somewhere better, of young children drowned – and judging others’ failure to help their fellow man.
Many of us, religious or not, believe we must love our neighbor as ourselves. And those of us who are Christian believe that to whom much is given, much is required. More to the point, we are told that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God himself, who created all of us – the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor and the suffering – though not necessarily in that order.
And yet that still leaves a lot of questions about what we should do as individuals and, maybe even more complicated, what we should do as a country. Should we increase the number of refugees we allow into our country? Should we fix our long-broken immigration system? Should we reconsider what we can do to improve life and access to opportunity in developing countries?
We should do all three. But even if we do not agree on how we should respond, we must agree it is one of our greatest problems and in fact one of our greatest moral obligations.
We are a nation of immigrants. In fact, it’s arguably the one thing most of us have in common. I hope we never forget that because I am never more proud to be an American than when we give others a shot at attaining what we are so lucky to have.
Dan Rearick is executive director of Uniting NC in Raleigh.