Mr. President, we spent part of the tenth day of your administration, a Sunday morning, at a march in the streets of Burlington. Understand, this is not normal for me. I usually spend Sunday morning watching English soccer and planning the school week ahead, reading papers, responding to messages from my students, communicating with parents, talking to board members about fund-raising, writing recommendations for former students who are applying to programs and schools.
But today we set all that aside and headed to Burlington to march with our neighbors in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. Some say marching is not important, that it’s nothing more than a couple of hours of all show and no real action. I beg to differ. It was important because each person at that march was standing, in physical body, for an abstract concept—generosity, friendship, commonwealth, tolerance, bother and sisterhood. I wanted to be present to stand for and with my friends, to reaffirm that I am part of them, and they are part of me. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t political theory. It was simple human solidarity, which grows ever more vital when the fabric of our human community is being torn. We sang “This Land is Your Land” and “This Little Light of Mine.” We greeted and introduced ourselves to those standing nearest us. I haven’t been to church in a while, but it felt something like that.
My son played for a soccer club in Burlington for ten years. I coached his team and travelled thousands of miles with them. Our club had numerous players of Bosnian descent of all ages. Many of those players were born in Germany: when their parents fled the war, persecution, and genocide in former Yugoslavia, Germany welcomed them and gave them refuge. From there, many of my son’s teammates’ parents immigrated to the U.S. and ended up in Burlington, which was, and remains, a welcoming sanctuary.
At the march I saw Gordana, the mother of Sandro, one of my son’s longtime teammates. A Muslim, she was one of those who fled to Germany. For the last ten years she has taught middle school math in South Burlington. Sandro’s father started his own company, and Sandro is now learning the business.
“My dad built that business. I could go to college, but I owe it to my parents to take it over and keep it going,” he told me.
Sandro’s parents followed our sons’ team up and down the east coast. Gordana booked hotels, drove players to training, dragged a cooler around the field after every game. She stood in rain and wind and cold to support her son, and my son, too, and she did it with joy and devotion.
There should be nothing surprising about this. Over time, all of us—players, parents, and coaches—grew to love each other. No one was alien, no one was afraid. There were no walls between us. We watched our sons grow up together. We were for each other.
When I talked to Sandro recently, he was not sanguine. “Things are pretty messed up,” he said. “It’s a scary time if you’re not white or not in the majority, or if you’re a minority religion. But I’m afraid to ever leave this country to go to Bosnia. Because I’m afraid I might never get back in.”
Imagine that, please. You are afraid inside your own country. And you are afraid to leave it.
My son’s soccer team also had players, all of them refugees—from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia— boys who, by some miracle of humanitarian or divine intervention, made it to these shores. A number of these boys lost their fathers. Many of them lived with relatives. Often they did not have rides to training, or sometimes showed up at training having bicycled across town at night in the snow, ready to play.
One of them was Momo. He came from Kenya through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to Burlington. His father died when he was young, but his mother raised him and his three sisters. He played in our club for five years. He went to college, and then came back to coach with our club while working another job to support his mother and sisters. As coach, he took on the younger teams, and made sure they all had rides to training and games. He would appear at matches with five boys packed into his Ford Taurus. All of them were refugees and, like him, American citizens.
We were studying Islam at my school. I wanted the kids to understand the religion, to have an appreciation for its majesty and wisdom and all it’s beautiful variations. I wanted any misconceptions my students had to be clarified; whatever stereotypes were calcifying in them—obliterated. I wanted them to have an authentic human connection to someone very different than they.
Momo brought two of his friends, both of whom wore white thwabs over their clothes. Momo was dressed in his soccer training top. They stood in front of our class for two hours. Each of them told stories of how they came to this country. They spoke of the five pillars of Islam. They spoke of their reverence for the Mother. They explained to us the story that Muhammed once told one of his companions that Paradise is at the feet of the mothers. They spoke of their traditions and holy days and the difficulty of fasting and purification. They spoke of their deep desire to one day fulfill their obligation to go to Hajj. They answered every question, including what it felt like to be Muslim in America.
“It feels very scary in airports,” Momo’s friend said flatly.
Momo left Vermont to become assistant director of a soccer club in New Hampshire. He is living a good life. He works with kids, mostly white kids, suburban kids. He strives to live in accordance with his traditions and remain spiritually pure. He’s generous and open-hearted. When I see him, I feel warmth radiating from him and around me.
Once we were standing on the side-line of big tournament watching a match. He said, “Hey, Tal, I have to leave, but if I have enough time, I’ll bring you back some samosas.” He knew I loved them, but I thought he was being friendly and kidding.
Two hours later I was still on the side-line watching another match. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. Momo held out a large paper bag to me. He was smiling.
“No way!” I said.
“I told you I would.” He was smiling broadly. “It’s my mother’s recipe. I went home and made them. They’re still hot.”
I still taste those samosas now. That was a part of the world Momo gave to me.