We’re almost through our third week without a president named Barack Obama.
I miss his calm demeanor, self-deprecating humor and general air of respect.
But if there’s one thing President Obama left behind for Americans as he vacated the Oval Office, it was hope.
That was a theme President Obama never strayed from.
He spoke of it in 2004, when he addressed the Democratic convention. He led with that theme in 2008, when he first ran for president. And during his last speech to the nation, just days before Donald Trump assumed the office of president, President Obama spoke of the optimism he still harbors that the United States will continue to be a beacon of welcome and refuge and innovation and leadership for the rest of the world.
Like others, I was distraught as Jan. 20, 2017, drew near and we faced the reality of a Trump presidency. Ugly things were happening. Reports of hate crimes against immigrants and minorities peppered the news. Meanness and vulgarity abounded on social media. It felt like the progress of the last 50 years was quickly slipping away, like water down a drain.
But since Jan. 21, I’ve got to say, the Trump presidency has stimulated hope.
What’s she talking about? you’re wondering. Is she hitting the scotch again?
My friends, I’m merely choosing to look at the last three weeks with a different perspective.
I believe the hate-filled tweets and executive orders have led many folks not to fall into lockstep with our authoritarian leaders or to cower in fear, but to become empowered. They’ve inspired hope.
Consider this. The executive order that restricts immigration and halts the resettlement of refugees was signed on a Friday. By Saturday, there were massive protests all over the country. Attorneys descended on airports to offer services to immigrants legally trying to gain access to our country, many of them green-card holders who were swept up in the confusion over the order.
That night, a judge ordered a temporary stay, followed later in the week by another ruling against the order.
That’s hope – a desire for a particular outcome to happen.
Last week, as I watched and read about the immigration executive order, I thought of all the immigrants and refugees I know. Surprisingly, for a white girl living the middle of the country in a heavily white town, I know quite a few.
And I wanted to do something to help. But I’m not an attorney. I couldn’t do anything tangible by going to the airport. I’m not an interpreter. I’m wasn’t sure what I could do.
But I’m not one for hand-wringing, so I decided to find a way to use whatever skills I have to help immigrants and refugees.
So I did that Wednesday night when I attended a volunteer orientation at Jewish Vocational Services in Kansas City. And so did more than 20 other Kansas Citians.
There were so many folks there to learn about how they could help refugees that the JVS employees had to bring in extra chairs and copy more volunteer applications.
Martin Okpareke, the outreach manager, gave an overview of how the agency helps refugees. JVS began in the late 1940s to help resettle Holocaust survivors and WWII vets returning home. Since 2004, in Kansas City, the agency has worked with one of nine national volunteer agencies charged by the United Nations with resettling refugees.
Refugees are people who can no longer live in their homelands because of persecution or real or perceived threats of bodily harm. They don’t leave their homes because they want to – they have no choice, said Okpareke, himself a former refugee from Nigeria.
Eighty percent of refugees are women and children – often the men in their families have been killed. Close to 70 percent of refugees have spent about 17 years in United Nations refugee camps, waiting either to return to their homes or to get lucky in the lottery that chooses who gets to the leave the camp for a home in a safer country.
JVS aims to engage refugees in becoming integrated into the United States, educate them about their new home and empower them to take control of their futures by finding jobs and becoming settled.
It’s difficult, Okpareke said. Many suffer post-traumatic stress from what they have been through. Others find the cultural differences between their countries and the United States difficult to overcome. Most worry about their families pulling apart as everyone works toward building a new life in a foreign land.
JVS uses volunteers to mentor newly arrived families and to help others who have been here longer study for the citizenship exam, for example. There were many more volunteer opportunities before the executive order halted everything.
Now the future is uncertain, Okpareke said. Last year, JVS resettled 518 refugees in the Kansas City area. Since January, they’ve welcomed two families.
Still, Okpareke said as he surveyed the potential volunteers, he has hope. Because the people gathered in that room had compassion.
And that gives me hope, too.
In my despair at the ugliness that has been a staple of American life for the last year, I had to do something to help. And so did all the others sitting in the room with me.