Last thing I saw before I shut it all off were video clips showing swarms of people protesting at airports around the country chanting “Let them in!” and “No Ban! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” Watching people waiting for their loved ones to emerge from Customs and Immigration was an all-too-familiar scene. I have waited there in the arrivals area, worrying about my deaf father making it out of immigration after a 24-hour journey; or my eighty-year-old mother, making that exhausting journey after open-heart surgery.
This morning, I watched again, weeping, as they wheeled out a detained Iranian woman in her 80s whose grandchildren had been waiting for her amongst the protestors, holding a sign that read “We want Grandma!” Reporters descended on them and asked her “What is your message to the American people?” She listened as her granddaughter translated, and responded “Doosteshoon daram!” “I love them.” That’s when I lost it and began to weep.
After the Trump inauguration, I got a post on my Facebook wall last week from a high school friend whom I haven’t seen since 1978, saying she was going to unfollow me because I was too political. Great, I thought, go ahead. Then I started thinking about it. It’s always been a joke in our family that watching the news is a contact sport for us and we yell at the TV like other people yell when they watch football. I told this person on Facebook that I wish I could just turn it off and have a politics-free day once-in-while like she does. I also said it was a sign of her privilege that she could go through life not worrying about politics because it didn’t intrude into her day-to-day life.
I was born in Iran in 1960 into a family where politics was ubiquitous and permeated every layer of life. My father was a political prisoner under the last Shah’s regime; he had been rounded up with many writers and intellectuals after the 1953 CIA coup, which brought blowback in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution. And my maternal grandmother was a child survivor of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, when she ended up a refugee in Iran. She lived out her life there, while her siblings scattered in the Soviet Union.
In a family with this kind of story, the news – or politics – was the air we breathed. As a child in the Sixties, I loved visiting my grandma in Tehran-Pars, a then far suburb which was almost bucolic compared to the bustling city and downtown. She had a beautiful Persian garden with a central shallow pool surrounded by many fragrant rose bushes that she had tended for years. We loved splashing around in the pool and just having fun doing things we were not allowed to do anywhere else. She loved us unconditionally and spoiled us, as grandmas should. But without fail, at the top of the hour, her radio sitting up on the verandah would blast the news alert tone and everything would stop. She would yell, “The News! The News!” And run up to her chair on the verandah and sit for the five-minute report, as if the whole world had changed in the last hour.
This habit was burned into my memory and persona and I have become my grandma now, checking online for news constantly. I check Twitter on my phone all day for the latest trending news, searching hashtags to find the most current coverage. Under Bush #41, I had watched the “First Gulf War” on TV, never wanting to miss anything that happened; I even brought our little Sony Watchman TV into the bathroom, so I could watch the war and bathe my baby and toddler at the same time. After 9/11, my kids learned to cope with my news junky habits, and excused me or ignored me for being news-obsessed. When my in-laws in Minnesota supported Bush #43 in his war on the wrong country in my part of the world, I felt they had turned their backs on me after knowing me for over twenty years. I sent a Tom Friedman article to the Minnesota in-laws, thinking he might convince them about the wrongness of this war. Instead, it widened the gulf between us with one of them blasting me for “taking pot shots at my president.” Never mind that I thought family ties should run deeper than his allegiance to the president. I was woefully wrong.
I had lost my family and over the next few years, life became overly complicated and uncomfortable for us, especially for my husband who didn’t really know how to deal with so much conflict in a conflict-averse Anglo family and was in a no-man’s land between me and them. Like many families with members who can now be sorted into Red and Blue voters, our family began to drift apart. We celebrated holidays more and more with friends and the meaning of family began to change.
Having no family at all on the East Coast, we understood at a visceral level what it meant to lose your family to ideology. Our Minnesota family was part of the America that was at war with President Obama. Our high-held hopes for the country to come together in the Obama era after an ill-advised, wrong-headed and very costly war never came to fruition. In fact, after eight years of the family basically retreating to their own corners, the Trump inauguration has given cause for the Red voters to flex their muscles and make their positions known, in case we had forgotten who they really are.
Last week, a sister-in-law posted on Facebook that she was compelled to say that Trump “will be known for one of the greatest presidents that ever served our country” and that she just knew that “God put him here” and “he will accomplish many great things for our country.” She is what our family calls a single-issue voter. Her issue is abortion. It didn’t take much for my kids to call this out as fundamentally at odds with our progressive-thinking family. Other Minnesota family members have become Christian Zionists who “go to prophecy conferences” where they have learned that “every time the U.S. does something to harm Israel, something bad happens to America.” They believe that until all the land of ancient Israel is under Jewish control, the Messiah cannot return. These are not easily-bridged divides.
My now-grown daughters, each of whom attended a seven-sisters school, have become laser-focused outspoken feminist advocates for civil rights and human rights. This time around, I don’t feel as alone as the months and years following 9/11. Their understanding of the issues and rights at stake under the regressive Trump era has been a shot in the arm for me. I even got an apology for their indifference in the Bush years about what I went through “with Dad’s family.” Really, though, it was an apology I didn’t want or need because I want them to see their father’s family as family, and not as some ideologically extreme, far away relatives. They are after all, the only immediate family we have here.
Meantime, I will keep checking the news like my Mez-Mama and sound the alert to whoever will listen about what happens when we turn back refugees. I ran across a new Twitter account called St. Louis Manifest, tweeting as @Stl_Manifest. This account is tweeting names and pictures of refugees on the ship, the St. Louis. The passengers were “the victims of Naziism turned away at the doorstep of America in 1939,” the account says. Here is one of the hundreds of tweets they have sent out this month, each about a different passenger on the ship’s manifest. I am hoping someone in the White House will listen: “My name is Max Wolff. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”