Crossing Borders; Mira Tanna, American Friends Service Committee

I invite you on a trip with me this morning, as I share some of my memories, and the teachings of others, on borders crossed. Not so much a linear progression or a well developed political analysis, this is more of a meditation, and I hope some of it resonates with you, and I hope other parts push you a little, across borders where you haven’t been.

1. The First Border

The first border I crossed was one that everyone crosses, from womb to world, from being protected from the world to setting about discovering it, from being a part of someone else to being on my own. It was the coldest November night at the end of a tumultuous decade. The taxi couldn’t make it down the hill to our house because of the ice, so my mother was pushed up the hill with me inside. I came into the world in the middle of the night at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though I remember nothing of this time, it was a difficult one for my family. My mother contracted tuberculosis, and my father fell into depression. Without moorings, we moved from Scotland, to Holland, to the States, finally setting in Iowa City, where my memories begin.

In his recent novelThe Last Song of Manuel Sendero, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmari describes a fantastic proposition. During the reign of the Dragon Pinchot there is a great revolt-a rebellion of the unborn. For six weeks, they hold to their rebellion and refuse to come out into the world, refuse to be born into a world of injustice. One never comes out, and he tells his grandfather, Manuel, to pass on his words to the Caballero: “TelI him, Grandfather, don’t be afraid, when we can come out into the peaceful night… without five men knocking at our door… when nobody will be born without a heart, Grandfather, [when] it’s guaranteed that you’re born with a double heart so that injustice will hurt us so much we’ll have to do away with it once and for all… tell him, Grandfather, proclaim it even if nobody listens to you… even if they call you an idealist and a romantic and a socialist and an anarchist and a stubborn dreamer, it’s worth it just to say it… it’s worth it to be faithful to the joy that conception brings, it’s worth it to love history the way other people have loved a woman or a man… Tell him he doesn’t exist, that he has all the power and none of the love, tell him we’re being born all the time.” In the end, despite the disapperances and injustice in Chile under Pinochet, Dorfman says that it’s better to be engaged in the world for all its pain. It’s better to try and change things, to create something new, to feel and to live deeply, It’s better to have a heart and be wounded than to become numb, and that being born, having the hope to bring life into this world, is in itself a political act.

2. Selective Borders

My mother came to the United States in the mid 1950s to work for a year as an au pair. Her father warned that if she left Holland, she would never come back. She said she’d be there just for a year. When the year was up, she bqan to take classes. She ended up going to nursing school, and then met my father, had a few children, and never did get back to Holland. It took the next generation to return. My sister, who is a cellist, is now a Dutch citizen and lives in Holland. My father came to the United States to do his medical residency. As a doctor, it was easier for him to get in the country than for many immigrants. When it came time for him to apply for a green card, he was given a choice. Either he could apply from outside the United States, in which case he couldn’t come in for 2 years, or he could apply from inside the US, in which case he would have been drafted right away to serve in Vietnam, because he is a psychiatrist and they needed psychiatrists. My parents disagreed with the war, and they left the country, which is why I was born in Scotland. Two years later, they were granted permanent residency and returned to settle. Though my parents did their share of hard work, they came to this country knowing English. They didn’t have to support family back home. They could have had good lives in their home countries, but the opportunity to come here presented itself and they took it.

“Crisis of identity, anxieties born of expulsion, ghosts that haunt and accuse: exile sows doubts and raises issues not necessarily faced by those who live far away by choice. The outcast cannot return to his country or to one he had taken as his own. When you’re washed up on foreign shores, your soul is bared to the storms and you lose your habitual frames of reference and shelter. The distance is greater when there is no alternative,” writes Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, describing political exile. For the economic refugee, it’s a different situation yet. Desperate to provide for his family back home, he comes to the United States illegally, toils in our fields and meatpacking plants, sews in our sweatshops, serves us in our restaurants, and is constantly held hostage to the fear of deportation. He will never be able to call this place home. He is not wanted, except to do our dirty work. For some Central American and Caribbean countries, one of their main sources of foreign exchange is the money sent home by family members working in the United States. Why was the statue of liberty there to greet my parents, but not these? And do we have any responsibility when we have helped create some of the conditions which push people out of their countries? Supporting death squads in Central America and Haiti, prescribing neoliberal economic policies through the World Bank and NF which have widened the gap between rich and poor, presiding over a staggering transfer of resources from the South to the North through debt? What role does our country’s foreign policy play in pushing migration?

3. New Borders

In the spring of 1947, my father was part of one of the largest migrations in recent history, what he calls “the most tragic moment in the history of India.” From the age of 3, he had lived in Karachi. One of his best fiends, Ibrahim, was a Muslim. But when he was 11 years old, he boarded a freighter with his family and headed into the Arabian Sea to Jamnagar. His father stayed back to close out the business. They worried for him, since he always dressed in the simple cloth of a Hindu. My father was one of the lucky ones. Going by ship, they managed to avoid the murder, rape and torture which greeted migrants from both sides traveling by land. At least 600,000 people were massacred. Although Gandhi had pleaded for a united India, my father saw partition as inevitable and as the natural outgrowth of the British policy of divide and rule. And yet my father says that despite hatred and mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan, Indians must recognize that some of the goriest periods of Indian history were tider Muslim leadership, I grew up hearing stories about Akbar, the great Moghul emperor, and the way in which his wisest servant Birbal would trick and advise him.

In 1944, over seventeen days of conversations, Mohandas Gandhi pleaded with the president of the Muslim League, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, against the partition of India. At one point, Gandhi said: “You can cut me in two if you wish, but don’t cut India in two.” His pleas were in vain. Days before his assassination, he asked at his daily prayer meeting for each Hindu and Sikh in the audience to bring along at least one Muslim to prayers thereafter. He read from the Koran, and announced that his next journey on behalf of peace would be to Pakistan. Fifty years later it was Muslims in the Bosnian government who would argue that Sarajevo should remain an undivided city, a city for all faiths and ethnic groups, that Bosnia – Hercogovina shouldn’t be divided into ethnic Serb, Croat and Muslim enclaves. Now Ibrahim Rugova’s calls for a nonviolent solution to oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are being drowned out by militants from both sides. Must ethnic borders become national borders? Can we find a way to maintain our identity and rights within a nation of many cultures? While people should have the right to self-determination, wouldn’t we prefer to find ways build healthy multicultural nations?

4. Breaching Borders

I grew up when the nuclear age had already begun to mature and people were used to living with the bomb. Still, when the movie “The Day After” came out, every school child’s fears were raised. I was certainly more afraid of nuclear bombs than I was afraid of Russians. It didn’t matter where the bomb would come from, it could come as easily from a crazy leader or an accidental launch or a response from a US attack. The Russians weren’t the problem, I thought, the bomb makers were. In college I studied Russian, and spent the spring of 1990 in Moscow, in the late days of perestroika. It confirmed my feeling that the Russians were not our enemies, though they had managed to create a language that felt as difficult to learn as cracking a code. Even so, trust was difficult to build.

I witnessed relationships between Americans and Russians fall apart when the American accused the Russian of using them to get to the US, or of being part of the KGB. Trust is not easy to build, especially when there are inequities between the sides. I knew it was important if there were to be peace between Russia and the US to be able to understand Russians. There were many things about the Soviet system that I would never understand. On one early evening, suddenly we heard fireworks. They had already celebrated May Day and Victory in Europe Day. We wondered that they could possibly be celebrating now. We learned finally that it was National Border Guard Day. It also, by coincidence, happened to be the third anniversary of the date when German Mathias Rust piloted his Cessna into Red Square, managing to escape detection from the Soviet military, Perhaps the Border Guards had been so busy celebrating, that they didn’t notice this breach of their border.

Governments create borders of fear between their nation and so-called enemy nations. During the Cold War, it seems that many more Americans bought the US propaganda about Russia than Russians buying Soviet propaganda about us. Russians knew their press wasn’t free. They knew their government didn’t have their interests in mind, and they didn’t trust what was told to them. While many Americans opposed Red Scare tactics, a larger percentage bought it, because they believed that we live in the freest nation on earth. The late Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who covered wars from the Spanish Civil War to the wars in the 80s in Central America, writes: “After a lifetime of war-watching, I see war as an endemic human disease, and governments are the carriers, Only governments prepare, declare and prosecute wars. There is no record of hordes of citizens, on their own, mobbing the seat of government to clamor for war. They must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever. They have to be taught they are endangered by an enemy, and that the vital interests of the state are threatened. The vital interests of the state, which are always about power, have nothing to do with the vital interests of the citizens, which are private and simple and are always about a better life for themselves and their children. You do not kill for such interests, you work for them.”

5. Crossed by the Border

A few years ago, I visited a friend in Tijuana. He worked in Tijuana for about six years at the YMCA, where they operated a Home for Migrant Youth and were part of a coalition monitoring rights along the border. He took me to the Mexican side of the border at night. An eerie quiet hung over the area. Hot search lights shined upon the small Tijuana River. He explained that what we couldn’t see was the command center of the Border Patrol where they used infrared technology to search for people crossing illegally and where they took people they found and sometimes interrogated and beat them. What I could see were a few vendors who were there to sell the last meals in Mexico to people trying to cross.

Roberto Martinez, the director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego describes his life in struggle as a Chicano. He says, “My great, great grandparents came from Texas and they lived there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. In other words like we say a lot ‘we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ They broke the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo right from day one. Lands were taken away, people were chased into Mexico. As settlers swept across the country they took away land, took over mines, took over everything. We basically ended up, our people, my great grandparents, more like indentured servants working for people on the land that they used to own.” While NAFTA makes it easier for capital and merchandise to cross the border, the militarization of the border is making it more difficult for people to cross. For the first time since 1848, when the war with Mexico ended, we now have U.S. troops face to face with Mexican troops on the border. The INS has conducted exercises for its “enhanced border control plan” in the event that the Mexican economy completely collapses. Practiced in the desert with advice from the Pentagon, they rehearse for rounding up immigrants into temporary collection points of fenced-in corrals and identify prisons, county jails and military bases where they could detain and question immigrants who refuse to return immediately. Free trade, free markets, and fenced-in people.

6. An Illegal Border Crossing

This past December, I traveled to Iraq with a group called Voices in the Wilderness. I spoke about this trip at the Adult Forum here in February. I traveled there in direct violation of US laws, which requires State Department approval for US citizens traveling to Iraq. While there, our group delivered $40,000 worth of medicine to a children’s hospital in Baghdad, in direct violation of the economic blockade of the country, which requires licenses for the distribution of essential food and medicine and which prevents Iraq from buying and selling except in the very controlled framework of the Food for Oil Deal. I went because I wanted to see for myself what the conditions were under the sanctions and be able to report on those conditions back in the US. I also went to try and be a good will emissary from the United States, to be able to say to Iraqis who were suffering, that I stood with them and not with my government, or their government, that I didn’t think it was right for the innocent people to be put in the middle of this situation, Like I had found in Russia, the Iraqis immediately understood this. They themselves said, time after time, that they had no problem with the American people, that they saw us as brothers and sisters, that it was the US government’s policy, though, that was killing them.

And I saw the sorts of people our policies were killing: Alla Hammad, a three year old with leukemia, was hooked up to a monitor which would continually emit high pitched beeps. The doctor said she could die at any moment. Radiation therapy, available in Iraq before the Gulf War, has now ceased because of sanctions. Three year old Hattan Karim was suffering from kwashiorkor, acute malnutrition, which had been unknown in Iraq for decades before sandions. Ali was a 45 day old newborn with pneumonia, the smallest child I’ve ever seen. His mother was strikingly beautiful and I sat with her and looked at her tiny baby, which she would rotate into a defective incubator every once in awhile. Five month old Sara Karem, weighed less than half of normal body weight. Her father had glaucoma, for which there was no treatment available. Mustafa Azawi, a young boy with leukemia, clutched his finger, which was black from gangrene. They didn’t even have the facilities to amputate his finger to stop the spread of the gangrene because they didn’t have enough sutures, anesthesia, blood and IV bags, and other instruments to conduct regular surgery. And in this in a country which had the most sophisticated public health care system in the Arab world before 1990. As I talk about these children I saw six months ago, I wonder how many of them are still alive.

One of the first things we did after crossing the border back into Jordan, was to call the US Embassy in Amman to request a meeting. The Jesuit priest in our group made the phone call. They said that they were short staffed because it was around New Year’s and they wouldn’t be able to meet with us. So Simon told them briefly of our concerns about what we had seen, of the lack of food and medical care, and the disrepair of the infrastructure, caused by the sanctions. He then said that we were aware that our trip was in direct violation of a travel ban and the sanctions, and he asked the man to write down our names. He carefully spelled out the names of the five of us and said: “Write them down and say that we violated the sanctions, because when the Day of Judgment comes, our names will be written in the book.”

For me, crossing borders is at the heart of what peace work is, going to the other side to meet the enemy face to face. Sometimes that enemy is another nation, sometimes just an individual, or it could be people of a particular race, ethnicity or religion. Most of the time, I think, we realize that the biggest enemies are fear and prejudice. Crossing these boundaries forces us to confront these fears and then, hopefully, set about the more productive work of defining where true differences or inequities lie and trying to right them.

It was only two months after I was in Iraq that papers were carrying the Pentagon’s plans for bombing. And now I had been there and I bad met people who might have been killed or maimed in such a bombing. I had seen results of the previous war, the Amiriyah Shelter which was hit by two precision guided missiles on February 12, 1991, killing hundreds of civilians, I talked to Um Reyda, who lost 9 family members in that bombing. I saw the health effects of bombed sewage and water treatment facilities and of Depleted Uranium, What interests could I have that would be served by more of this? Many people will call me naive, but what did one war, pinprick bombings and sanctions accomplish? Democracy in Kuwait? A free Kurdistan? A stable Middle East? To be sure, UNSCOM has had success in ridding Iraq of some of its weapons of mass destruction, but without a
corresponding attempt to demilitarize the region, this is a fleeting victory-unless we plan to keep starving the Iraqis for the foreseeable future.

The structural reasons that have caused instability have not been addressed. For instance, one of Iraq’s aims in both fighting the 8 year war against Iran and invading Kuwait was to get unimpeded access to the Persian Gulf. Four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, US Ambassador Thomas Pickering asked the Jordanian ambassador to pass on a message to the Iraqi government: “We acknowledge your need for an opening to the Gulf, and the issue of access to the islands (Warba and Bubiyyl) is one that we could look on favorably.” The issue has yet to be resolved.

7. The Borders of Identity

I’ve been arrested on several occasions (mostly for things I’m proud of), and automatically, the police officer marks W under race. They ask me to check over the information, and I say, I’m not white. What are you, they ask? I’m half Asian and half European. We don’t have a category for that. You have to be one or the other. Can I be Other? Nope, we don’t have an Other category either. So the conversation goes back and forth. Why don’t you have a category for Other? Why can’t you mark both White and Asian? Am I supposed to choose between my mother and father? Eventually, they choose one or the other, and the charges get dropped in less time than it takes to figure out what my race is. Several years ago, I went to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, a week long gathering out in the woods of women only. I found myself in this discussion group of biracial women, talking about our experiences. There were some similarities, there were some nice people there, but for the most part we had very different experiences, and I didn’t feel like I connected automatically with them because they were biracial women. And I thought, I don’t need to segregate myself like this. How much better to find people I have common values and common interests with.

There is an enormous need for people to categorize themselves and others. For those who fall between the cracks, this is difficult, whether it be biracial people, bisexual, androgynous or transgendered people. Many people, especially those who have been oppressed on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, base much of their identity on their “otherness.” This is understandable for people’s whose lives have been about struggle. But it is the people in the crack who can hopefully crack open the conventional notions of race, gender and sexuality that, as Maria Root points out “have been constructed in the eye of the beholder of power.” She further writes: “There are different ways of experiencing, negotiating, and reconstructing the border between races [which] have implications for thinking about borders in similarly co-constructed dualities of masculine versus feminine and heterosexual versus homosexual identities… Many of us bring with us multiple perspectives, multiple loyalties, and an optimism that we can transcend race in our discussions of similarities and differences… Whereas Du Bois insightfully forecast that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line, my hope is that the boundaries among and between races will be the new frontier for changing the direction and structure of race relations as we begin the new millennium.” Struggles based on separatism or a biological essentialism just reproduce the structures which gave rise to oppression. We must look for allies among every category of people, and we must not assume that just because someone has the same skin color or reproductive organs as ourselves, that they are committed to overcoming oppression and prejudice.

8. Borders at Home: The City and The County

When I first moved to St. Louis, my mother told me not go into Forest Park alone. Ever. All through my first year of college, I obeyed her, and then summer came and I felt like exploring, and there was the park, big and beautiful, full of people running and playing sports, the peaceful lakes to sit by, museum treasures to explore. And I did. Next I was told not to go north of Delmar. It was actually written in a student handbook, that one should not look for apartments north of Delmar in the hp. But that’s where the cheapest apartments were, so I moved there, and lived for six years in the neighborhood, helping to start a neighborhood organization and community gardens. I loved living in the Loop, Then about two years ago, I started organizing a housing cooperative. We came up with a name, a vision statement, a development plan, we incorporated, looked at other models and began searching for a building. We finally found one of a suitable size and price for sale in the Fox Park Neighborhood, near Jefferson and Russell. All excited, I talked to a friend of mine who warned that he had lived in that neighborhood for a month, and then he and his wife moved because they felt it was too dangerous. We bought the building, and the empty lot next door for a garden, and have been living there while we rehab it. Slowly we are getting to know some of the neighbors. I was talking to the woman across the street, who confessed that she can’t remember my name because everyone refers to me as “Friendly Jane.” She asked what exactly we were doing and I explained briefly the idea of the coop, to live in community with others, to share meals, and she said: “You probably don’t even see me as Black, do you? I’ve lived here for 17 years and I ain’t seen nothin’ like it.”

While going to Iraq may be difficult for most St. Louisans, going into the city is not. For me, it’s become a moral imperative to live in the city. We live in an increasingly divided region, divided by race and class! The disparities are striking, In St. Charles County, the fastest growing county in the metro region, 98.2% of the residents are white. 72% own their own homes, 75% earn over $25,000 a year. In St. Louis City, one of the fastest declining population centers in the US, 51% of the residents are white, 38% own their own home, and only 40% earn over $25,000 a year. Over half of young people in St. Louis City grow up in poverty. As the population spreads out, providing services to city residents becomes more of an issue. Bus fares are about to go up, and many city residents rely on buses to get them from their homes to new jobs in the county. The infant mortality rate has seen a sharp rise since Regional Hospital closed. As suburban style housing takes up more and more land, older city brick homes go to waste. In a striking turn about, there are areas in the city which are more spacious and quieter than in the county since they’ve been abandoned. As we become more segregated by race and class, we lose perspective. We have trouble really envisioning what people’s lives are like. We live in different realities that become harder to bridge. Over the past two months, I’ve lived without a car in the inner city and that has changed my perspective about as much as traveling to Iraq did. I’ve started to realizing the great amount of planning that comes with relying on public transportation, the restrictions on freedom, the difficulty shopping. And yet, I’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with riding the bus and Metrolink. If more car owners would ride the bus, we could get rid of some of the transportation problems this city faces.

When people talk about racism or classism, they usually seem to be talking about overt cases of bigotry, of racial slurs and racist jokes, denial of jobs or promotion to ethnic minorities. But racism and classism in this city is not primarily perpetuated by out and out bigots. They are perpetuated by people like you and me. People who move to the county because they want their children to go to a better public school, People who want to live in a neighborhood where they’ll feel safe, and they think they’ll find that in the county. These aren‘t bad things, of course, they are everybody’s concerns. But when 300,000 people who have the means all leave the city in 25 years, the result is a huge redistribution of resources, a pulling out of investment, a reduction of services, an increase in poverty, a defunding of schools. It’s going to take a huge migration back into the city, a huge crossing of the border between suburb and city, in order to turn things around. The city can continue to offer its tax breaks to companies, to build stadiums for sports teams, but this won’t keep investment where it matters. It is going to take people investing in residential neighborhoods, maintaining their property, getting involved in their neighborhood associations, and living in racially and economically diverse areas, for things to really change. Otherwise that border between city and county will loom larger than the border between the US and Canada and be much harder to cross.

9. Psychological Borders

The border I keep bumping up against is fear. I was told not to go to Russia because I’ll have nothing to eat. I was told that the best that could happen to me by going to Iraq was spending 10 years in prison–the worst, death, of course. I’ve been told I’ll get raped or attacked by living in the city and by walking at night. I’ve been told that the omnipotent IRS will give me no peace by resisting to pay war taxes. These fears are not totally without basis, though I think the likelihood of getting killed in a car accident probably tops all the others, and nobody’s telling me not to drive. Fear is a method of social control. Eduardo Galeano, in his address to the hundreds of artists who stood against the Chilean dictatorship, says: “We say no to fear. No to the fear of speaking, of doing, of being. Visible colonialism forbids us to speak, to do, to be. Invisible colonialism, more efficient, convinces us that one cannot speak, cannot do, cannot be. Fear disguises itself as realism: to prevent realism from becoming unreal, or so claim the ideologists of impotence, morals must be immoral… To say no to the suicidal egotism of the powerful, who have converted the world into a vast barracks, we are saying yes to human solidarity, which gives us a universal sense and confirms the power of a brotherhood that is stronger than all borders and their guardians.”
As I’ve worked to confront these fears, I realize that what I fear more is being on the wrong side, of contributing to injustice and war. What I fear more is living a boring, humdrum life, empty of meaning and purpose. What I fear is getting too comfortable and too complacent. I hope that life will keep pushing me on into unexpected territories.

And so, as this meditation comes to a close, I’ll argue for borders which are easily crossed, borders of shifting sands, and changing names, borders that are difficult to define, borders that can hold in some kind of identity and culture and yet not exclude, as in the desert. Michael Ondaatje, a novelist of Dutch descent who grew up in Sri Lanka, writes: “The desert could not be claimed or owned-it was a piece of cloth carried by the winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember…. I was walking not in a place where no one had walked before but in a place where there were sudden, brief populations over the centuries–a fourteenth century army, a Tebu caravan, the Senussi raiders of 1915. And in between these times–nothing was there. When no rain fell the acacias withered, the wadis dried out… until water suddenly reappeared fifty or a hundred years later.” And a new oasis sprung up around it.