Why I Empathize with the Children at the Border

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen the headlines of detained children at the US/Mexico border, separated from their parents and forced to wait in lock-down. Some of these kids are young and have special needs, such as the blind boy who was separated from his mother. Countless other stories have resurfaced, with video footage to boot.

The more I read, the angrier I get; but I realize that this anger comes from a trigger from my own childhood.

In the picture above, I was the little girl who kind of looked like a boy, sitting in the front row, all the way to the left. I had short hair that my mom cut when we found out I had lice, and even though I never had really long hair that I always wanted, I settled for the short cut — even though I hated it every single day. The clothes I’m wearing are hand-me-downs we got from the Red Cross. The pants never quite fit, and they rode up over my socks; and the shoes were simple, with this dull brown fabric that was starting to come undone at the seams. But I didn’t feel like a girl. I didn’t look like a girl my age, nor in any comparison to the girls in my class. I didn’t feel pretty, and at that age (what must have been maybe 8–9), I didn’t have the wherewithal to understand or analyze my thoughts or feelings — all of which culminated on poor self-confidence that trailed me into adulthood.

It was a difficult time. I went to school with my younger brother as a refugee kid, fleeing a war-torn country and settling into a new one. In school, everyone knew us as refugees, and while it took some time to overcome, that label would throw crude comments my way by bullies who didn’t even know what a refugee was. Children, who adopted their parents’ hate, made me feel like I didn’t belong. And having left a country where belonging was no longer an option for me, I felt like a plucked flower, floating in a storm with nowhere to ground down and bloom.

I don’t think I was angry as much as I felt misplaced and embarrassed; embarrassed to be poor, embarrassed to not be accepted at school or in my neighborhood, embarrassed to wear the label of someone who wasn’t wanted just because refugee had become such a laden word. All I was, was a girl who wanted to be like everyone else, to regain some semblance of a normal life, with utter desperation at trying to understand why this wasn’t an option for me.

When we moved to the States in 1998, we started the cycle over — a new neighborhood, a new country, a new life to build. Only this time, it was on a scale larger and scarier than we had known; and apart from learning a new language overnight, I felt like we had been dropped into the ocean when we just learned how to swim.

My brother and I attended school, fumbling and learning as we went. Sasa was so young when he started, that I’m pretty sure he didn’t speak a word of either English or Serbian for months. I had memorized a small paragraph in English while we were still back home, and I remember just chanting it like it was a prayer, every single day, in fear that I would forget. It was a simple “Hi, my name is Aleksandra” that I kept repeating like a broken record. My parents worked assembly jobs, with absolutely no English under their belts. They came home every day, worn down to the bone. As a young empath, I could feel their heaviness, and I often took it as my own. And even though we had a roof over our head and some money in the bank (probably more than we could ever earn back home!), all of us struggled in our own way. Because having a house is one thing; but creating a Home in what felt like another world is entirely a new challenge on its own. And while I am grateful, looking back on my journey 20+ years later, I am triggered by the news of the recent events at the border.

Mainly, I’m triggered by the children because I see myself in them. When I see them in pictures or in videos, with their eyes wide open, I remember myself and the fear I felt at having no control over my surroundings, and at having to yet again justify my existence in a country that I couldn’t call my own (and a country that wouldn’t call me its own). At such a young age, a child doesn’t know the weight of the decisions their parents made on their behalf, whether it was good or bad. A child doesn’t know, so how can we engage with them as if they should?

I would be remiss if I left out the fact that I came into this country legally. My family was welcomed here by a community of incredible people, and that makes me privileged. We were not turned away, nor was I ever separated from my parents, and I don’t take that blessing for granted. I never will.

But the reason why I am such a strong activist for this issue is because I am in a place of being able to give back. Like the people who welcomed my family and I with open arms in 1998, I can in turn become the support for others; I see this as necessary, now more than ever. This is why I write and engage with like-minded people who see the need to speak for the ones who cannot.

Having lived in this country for more than 20 years, I finally see myself as a proud citizen. I’ve paid my dues to America, and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished here. More importantly, I’m proud of what my parents have accomplished here. They were given an opportunity, and with blood, sweat, and tears — and some miraculous luck — they created a life for my brother and I of which blessings cannot be put into words. But I realize that this isn’t the case for many families looking for the same betterment that we did. In fact, it’s a long-lost dream for many, and it’s precisely this that breaks my heart. Because I understand the repercussions of illegally entering a country and subjecting your family to unknown dangers, I can tap into my own empathy to see beyond just this superficial fact. What lies there is the same goal for which my parents worked — a new life, a better life, a safer life. Asylum. Help. Hope. A chance to prove yourself and belong.

A dear friend recently told me of his own fear in allowing masses of refugees to flood the country’s economy. It’s a logical fear to have, and I don’t undermine his opinion in sharing his perspective. In light of what’s happened in America over the years, fear has been a constant — school shootings, terrorist attacks, and other tragedies that have taken an insurmountable number of lives. As a parent, this is a nightmare. As an individual, this shakes you to your core. But the lines in the sand between what is right and wrong have long been erased; at what point do we allow fear to dictate blind leadership over ethics? Are we able, as a people WITH a government (versus a government with people) to hold our laws in balance with humanity and integrity? With compassion and authority? With logic and emotion?

We can change our policies and we can protect our borders so that terrorists and criminals are kept at bay. But more times than not, what lies beyond the wall are just families. Families like my own; families like ones you have yet to meet, who, I hope, will show you how much we belong to one another.