The strongest people on the planet

“Send her back! Send her back!”

The chant: Is it merely a case study in collective stupidity or is it a signal of rising fascism? When I look at the viral video — the latest manifestation of Trumpism and the freeing of good old American racism from the constraints of political correctness — I can’t help but think of the 8-year-old girl I met the other day, who traveled two years with her mother to reach this country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The child, whose name I can’t use because her asylum case is still pending, lives with her mom, for the time being, at what is known as the House of Hospitality, a residence for refugees in Cicero, Illinois, just outside Chicago, that is run by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. This not-for-profit organization was founded a dozen years ago by two Sisters of Mercy to bring hope and crucial aid — legal, financial, spiritual — to emigrant detainees warehoused in various detention centers around Chicago.

The little girl is the face of struggle and courage, the embodiment of hope and interconnectedness. She is the refutation not merely of the chanting Trump supporters but of the nation’s bureaucratic cruelty and indifference to the plight and humanity of the global refugee flow, to the people who are seeking not simply “a better life” in the United States of America, but, as ICDI development director Ed Pratt put it, a life . . . a life!

I met recently with Ed, along with the organization’s executive director, Melanie Schikore, to learn about the work of ICDI and get a sense of the compassionate counterforce that exists in this country — a force in opposition to the concentration camps and ICE raids and “send her back” chants that dominate the news. A huge segment of the American population cares deeply about the refugees’ fate and welcomes them in every way possible.

The two nuns who founded ICDI in 2007 did so after being denied admittance to a detention center in Broadview, west of Chicago, where they had hoped to connect with detained refugees, many of whom were separated from their families, and see how they could help. Undeterred, they worked with other religious organizations — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — and eventually got a law passed in Illinois that gave detainees access to pastoral visitation.

At present, ICDI has over 350 volunteers who last year made over 8,000 visits to detention centers to provide solidarity and support to detainees. They have also been a court presence at immigration hearings. And the organization runs the House of Hospitality, which is currently providing housing for 15 refugees from 14 different countries.

Alas, ICDI recently lost its lease at the Cicero location — the building is a former convent owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago — and is now looking for a new site. They hope to find a building that will allow them to accommodate more families, which is currently the major need out there. Often families cannot be reunited unless they have housing and such housing is in pitifully short supply nationwide.

All of which brings me back to the 8-year-old girl I met last week. Perhaps I can call her “S.” Her story transcends anything I can imagine, even though only a small piece of it is known.

“S” and her mother fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo because her mother had been tortured there. They crossed the Atlantic (somehow: this part of their story is unknown) and arrived in Brazil. They then proceeded to walk from Brazil to the United States. In all, the journey took two years.

When they got here, rather than being welcomed with open arms, mother and child were yanked apart. The separation lasted four and a half months. They were only allowed to reunite because they had been able to attain housing.

“They reunited in our stairwell,” Ed said. The cries as they embraced tore people’s hearts. “They were like animal groans.”

Here’s what else I learned about “S”: She speaks five languages! Two of them, Lingala and French, are native to her home country. On the journey with her mother, she also picked up Portuguese, Spanish and, eventually, English.

The child I met was sheer 8-year-old — shy and charming and utterly huggable. Her English was flawless. So, apparently, is her Spanish. As Ed noted, she once served as translator for him with the Cuban cooks who work at the Hospitality House. His own Spanish wasn’t adequate to convey something to them, but “S” stepped in as translator and did the job. As I listened to this, my sense of awe kept expanding. This child, who has spent a huge piece of her life journeying with her mother, has gotten a global education. Her classroom has been the planet itself.

Being an emigrant, said Melanie “is an incredible journey. They’re pioneers! We hear so many stories. I frequently have the thought, I couldn’t survive that.

“Every story is different. All are heart-wrenching. Everyone has a story that, if you knew it, would break your heart. They are the strongest people on the planet. Who wouldn’t want them? They chose to come and made it.”

She added: “We’re all interconnected. If we don’t understand that we’re global citizens and need to take care of one another, then we’re doomed.”

What if this were government policy? ICE has an annual budget of around $7.5 billion, which is spent in absolute denial of our interconnectedness. It “protects” the country by defining emigrants as aliens and denying them virtually all basic rights.

In counterpoint to this sort of policy were the words that accompanied an elderly woman’s $25 donation to ICDI. She wrote on her check: “Your work is more important than my food.”

Robert Koehler(, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.


  1. Rowan Wolf July 29, 2019 2:24 pm 

    In an age when people can reach virtually anywhere on the surface of the planet in roughly 51 hours, the thought that it could take years for someone to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ definitely implies both barriers to travel and incredible persistence. It is not unusual for migrants years to reach our borders or the borders of European or Asian nations. In fact, the paths of refugees, in particular, are rarely either straightforward nor smooth. Along with a lack of resources, refugees must contend with what we might call the bureaucracy of refuge.

    The path of a refugee may start internally when something catastrophic forces a move from home. Sometimes this may be after a number of disasters (war, drought, plague, inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflict) have eroded peoples ability to respond. At some point, the push factor causes people to sell what they can, pack up and move. In mass migrations, there may be tens of thousands of people on the move. These people are not relocating. They are fleeing for their lives. Those with the most resources frequently have the ability to convert those resources, plan their exit and their destination. If the push factors persist over time, those with little or nothing flee when there is no choice and they go where they can with perhaps a long term goal in mind.

    We can see this pattern with the early Cuban migration where people had not just financial resources, but social resources (education, skills, and often connections in the United States). However, later migrations were neither prepared nor having social or personal resources. They arrived with little to nothing in overloaded “boats” that were not seaworthy (or not boats). The reception in the U.S. was quite different for these very different groups. Early Cuban immigrants were broadly accepted and most found their feet and started their new lives. Not to minimize their experience, but their experience was closer to a relocation than a migration except that it happened in large numbers. This is not the experience of the boat people, many of whom drowned on the way, and who came with virtually the clothes on their backs and a will to survive. These people were held in mass facilities, behind fences, and more than a few were returned to Cuba. In fact, the U.S. government accused Castro of emptying Cuba’s prisons and sending the criminals to the United States.

    Today, many of the refugees and asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. have spent years trying to get here. This is particularly true of those from Africa and the Middle East where they may have spent significant time first internally dislocated, then in refugee camps in neighboring nations, then moving from those camps in desperate attempts to reach safer shores in Europe or sometimes South America. Along the way, they are likely to have been “processed” multiple times by governments, the UN, various aid organizations both NGO and religious. They have likely applied for asylum in various nations including through US embassies around the world (embassies that Trump has woefully neglected). At the current time, there are hundreds of African asylees among those waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border because they went to Brazil on their way here. It is not unusual for their “journey” to have lasted years.

    It is critical to understand that even those just immigrating may have spent years, even more than a decade, attempting to reach the United States. It is critically important because their journey started long before Trump changed the rules (and started violating international law – laws the U.S. helped write). The United States accepted asylum seekers; accepted refugees from around the world; accepted immigrants from around the world. Many of them have already passed all of the very thorough screening of the State Department, a process many completed before Trump took office on January 21, 2017. Yet now the doors are slammed closed. They are in an endless holding pattern with no support on the other side of the border – almost 20,000 are waiting in the hot sun with no food or housing as I write this introduction. They are being allowed across the border to request entry at a rate of 7 people a week. At this rate (assuming no one else shows us, the current roadblock will take almost 2900 WEEKS — roughly 50 YEARS — before the last (numbered) person will be allowed to apply for asylum. At what point would you grab your children and run for the border (illegally)? Perhaps while you are still young enough to run, and your child is still a child.

    Imagine having spent 6 months, a year, 5 years, 10 years, to arrive at the borders of the United States only to find that the rules have completely changed. The U.S. is “full”. We are not taking anybody (unless you have lots of money to establish yourself) if you are brown, black, Muslim, or from some other “questionable” group or region – regardless that the US embassy and umpteen agencies investigated and cleared you along the way. We aren’t accepting either refugees or asylum seekers. We are off the ethical and legal charts at this point, but Trump persists and McConnell refuses to allow anything to even come to the Senate floor to challenge this atrocity.

  2. avatar
    Michael July 27, 2019 12:44 pm 

    Mr. Koehler is absolutely right. I have often thought the same. Koehler writes, “They are the strongest people on the planet. Who wouldn’t want them? They chose to come and made it.”

    This is a truth that underlies much, most immigration, certainly in the history of the US. I, too, have been an immigrant to two other countries in the past, outside the US. As an immigrant I was not a “special” person, but one must become so to, let’s say, survive. I worked 7 days a week, days and at least three evenings, it was simply an economic necessity. I gained new skills, was like a sponge soaking up culture, language, and learning from everyone. Each day I considered a laboratory, every demand had something to learn, easy, onerous, or exhausting. It took years to move beyond temporary status to permanent, and you can believe that I valued what I came to have. There is much more to tell that this space is not the place to share, but I know many immigrants now in the US and their experiences are very similar here. The only negative aspect of such experience is that immigrants who have the strength and determination to come here, are lost to their country of origin that usually needs their courage, strength, and talents. US Representative Ilhan Omar is simply one great example.

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