A scarf, a border crossing, and learning empathy first-hand

5 February 2016

I bought a purple and gold scarf in a market in Luxor on the banks of the Nile. He started at 220 Egyptian Pounds, but by lying about how much money I had and threatening to leave, I got him down to 70 pounds, which is ten dollars. The scarf is royal and majestic, and I was very pleased with my haggling and purchase. I intended the scarf to be a present for my mother, but figured I’d wear it around myself a bit. I’m starting to bond with it now, though, and I’m not sure that I’ll ultimately want to give it up.

Today we crossed into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. I put the scarf on that morning in Jordan, not really thinking about it, but when we got close to the border some mentioned to me that maybe it’d be better to take it off. Anti-Arab sentiment runs pretty high among Israeli border security officers, and Arab-looking scarves and kaffiyehs on people trying to cross the border isn’t a great idea. I thought about taking it off, but it was such a small thing, and I left it on.

After I stepped through the metal detector, the man I had just handed my passport to asked me to take off my scarf and jacket. He asked to see the label on the scarf, and then told me to go sit in an area off to the right. I asked for my passport back, but he kept it. After a minute or two I was moved from the waiting area into a little room all by myself, where a man soon appeared to question me about EMU and our trip. He grilled me for a while, and then asked about the scarf. I told him it was a souvenir from Egypt, and then added, “It’s a gift for my mother.” Appeased, but not happy about it, they told me to retrieve my backpack, gave me my passport, and directed me towards the next line.

All in all I was delayed perhaps twenty minutes. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. But psychologically… I don’t know, it sort of was. I was detained by border security. I felt small. Even with all my power and privilege, I had no control over that situation. I knew I was completely in the right, had nothing to hide, had all the proper documentation, but it was still scary. Even with literally everything going for me and only one possible outcome, I was still stressed out and even afraid.

Today I got the tiniest possible taste, on the smallest possible scale, of what it must be like to be a refugee or immigrant. I can’t imagine being detained overnight or being stuck in a line for days because of a missing piece of paperwork or some system not checking out. And yet there are untold millions who live this hell every day – stuck at or behind borders, unable to travel freely to see their families, unable to leave their refugee camp, stuck in endless lines and starving.

We learned at the MCC office that Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million refugees from Syria. This influx raised their population by almost 20%. In all this 1.5 million, there was not one recorded instance of an ISIS fighter sneaking in as a refugee to cause trouble. The United States is squabbling over the entrance of only 10,000 refugees, with vastly more resources and personnel at our disposal for both vetting and resettlement.

The horrible truth of the above paragraph is enough to make me so angry I can’t see straight. The United States’ grand destiny was supposed to be a home for the tired, huddled masses – a beacon for those who are lost. Imagine how wonderful it would have been if we had led the charge in resettling those fleeing Syria and enfranchised the Muslim world. Instead we have marginalized them and been ruled by fear and hate. I’m so disappointed at the sorry state of my country in response to this huge gulf of human suffering. The cries of conservative leaders to ban Muslims from entering the country and blaming all sorts of things on the refugees is an abject absurdity. If Jordan can play nice, so can we.

Of course, Syria isn’t the only place generating refugees. Tonight I will fall asleep in the West Bank, an area containing many Palestinians who have been forced off their ancestral land and into camps. We have arrived at the central chapter to our trip. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict touches many threads; economics, security, foreign policy, religion. I felt today a sharp turn in the kinds of things we will be seeing and talking about. The last two weeks have been steeped in the Old Testament – now we’re going to start talking about things that are happening now.

I have no idea what it must be to be disenfranchised. What hardship have I ever endured? I’m so grateful for the chance to come see the other side, where movement is restricted, where rights aren’t recognized, where an entire ethnicity and religion is demonized, where you can be detained just because of a scarf.

I think I’ll keep it on, though. My host sister said it looks pretty.

Welcome to [the West Bank]! I have already found reason to hope here.

-Eli Wenger