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The Stranger in Our Midst

The Stranger in Our Midst

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You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:19

You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan, remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 16:12

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them . . . You shall love them as yourself.

Leviticus 19:33-34

Like many people in the US, I’ve been thinking a good deal over the past months about immigration. It’s hard not to because the topic has been one of the political firebombs of the 2016 presidential campaign. With what is widely reported to be the largest worldwide migration of people in the recorded history of the world, the issue will be with us for many years, no matter who has won the election. But, I’ve been reflecting more on the personal aspects for the immigrants and their families rather than the political.

All 4 of my grandparents came to the US from Europe in the years that led up to World War I. I especially remember hearing about my grandmother on my mom’s side. She was sent from what was then Russia by her mother after her father had disappeared and was assumed to have been murdered in an act inspired by extreme religious persecution. My grandmother left for the US at age 16, alone and speaking no English, bound for Kansas City, where cousins lived. I never tired of hearing about how, knowing no one on the ship, scared, and hungry, she was befriended by a man who shared with her his large bunch of bananas. As I heard in repeated telling, she pretty much ate nothing but those bananas during her entire voyage to the US. I’ve often tried to imagine what that experience was like and how it affected her.

This past summer I saw 2 plays that further stimulated my thoughts. The first is a work in progress called Queens, as in Queens, NY, by Martyna Majok, a young playwright who came to the US from Poland. Her play focuses on the lives of 6 young women immigrants, all of whom have come recently to NY, all of them alone and with few resources other than their ambitions. Although an unfinished work, it illuminates a critically important aspect of the immigrant experience: that in coming to a new country, even if motivated by a striving for a better life, everyone gives up multiple important aspects of their identities—of their psychological selves. The characters reveal that creating a new sense of self is a core psychological process for the recently arrived immigrant.

The second play, also a work in progress commissioned by the Public Theater in NY, is by the young hip-hop artist born in Somalia, Keynaan Cabdi Warsame, known by his stage name, K’naan. When he was 13, he and his mother came to NY where they lived for 6 months until moving to Toronto. Before the performance started, he told the audience his work clearly had been informed by some of his own traumas, including the death of his closest childhood friend just days after K’naan left Somalia.

K’naan’s play concerns 2 young adult friends from Somalia who come to NY. The story takes place during the political upheaval in Somalia that caused not only his family, but tens of thousands of others to leave Somalia. A key driving force of the plot focuses on what can only be called a traumatic de-idealization. This occurs in the play when one of the character’s idealization of the US as a land of milk and honey is quickly shattered by his personal experience of being a stranger in a strange land. Similar to the other play, this one focuses on the personal experience of the immigrant.

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