Thursday, April 15, 2010

Strangers in Our Midst

Probably like many of you, I’ve found myself very caught up in the story of the seven-year-old adopted boy whose mother decided she had had enough of him and his difficult behavior and simply put him on a plane for Moscow—he was originally born in Russia and was adopted there—and returned him to his original homeland rather in the manner of someone returning a no-longer-wanted purchase to the mail-order house from which it was originally purchased. At first blush, the story sounds horrible but not morally complex. There are parents who abandon their children all the time, after all, and we have no difficulty treating such people as criminals. (Child abandonment is criminal offense in every state, even though most states now have laws permitting parents to abandon their children at designated “safe” places, like hospitals, without the fear of subsequent prosecution.) And yet something about this story, about a woman traveling halfway around the world to adopt an abandoned child and then herself abandoning him when it turned out that parenting a troubled child was far more stressful and overwhelming a task than she had imagined it was going to be, seems beyond the pale of “normal” bad parenting. And the specific way he was returned—by being put on a one-way flight to Moscow all by himself to be met by a total stranger his grandmother had hired over the Internet to deliver him to the Russian Education and Science Ministry where he was instructed to hand over a note from his adoptive mother saying that he was damaged goods and was being returned as such—seems so callous as almost to defy description in words alone.

What happens to this little boy, called Justin in Tennessee but originally and now again called by his Russian name Artyom, who knows? At the moment, he is in some sort of hospital in Moscow being evaluated, but he obviously can’t stay there forever and will almost inevitably end up in some Russian orphanage where the hope will surely be that he slowly forgets this whole traumatic experience. But even if he does somehow manage to forget it, I doubt it will forget him. How many times can a child be abandoned before the experience takes a permanent toll on his psyche? By how many mothers can a child be rejected before his or her sense of self-worth is damaged beyond any reasonable hope of repair? What can it possibly mean to a little boy to bond with a new mother and then be told that he came up wanting, that the love everybody told him was unconditional turns out to be entirely conditional…and that he himself failed to meet his end of the bargain by being the kind of normal, well-adjusted child a mother could easily love? How can he not blame himself for failing to meet his mother’s standards? Do emotionally challenged eight-year-olds know that they are emotionally challenged? Or do they just assume that they failed yet another test and so must not face the consequences of their own failure to be good or, somehow even worse, to be good enough?

I find myself comparing this story for some reason with the horrific story of Phoebe Prince, the young Irish girl who finally took her life last month to escape the endless barrage of bullying to which she was subjected by her peers at South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Massachusetts. That high school kids get bullied is not exactly a newsworthy discovery. Nor is it especially shocking to learn that most school officials prefer to ignore the phenomenon for as long as they reasonably can. But what makes this case special and very interesting is that the District Attorney in South Hadley responded not with a speech about the need for stricter guidelines controlling bullying in schools but by bringing actual criminal charges against nine students enrolled in the school, two boys and seven girls. (Both boys were charged with statutory rape as well.) Of the nine, one is eighteen years old, two are seventeen, three are sixteen, and the other three, left unidentified because of their age, are younger than sixteen. And it is possible, so the D.A., that more charges will be brought. In the meantime, it turns out that poor Phoebe’s story was not her private burden to bear. Or at least that it probably wasn’t—the District Attorney claims that at least some school officials were well aware of the problem, while the Superintendent of Schools claims the opposite to be the case. Whatever the truth is, it will all inevitably come out in court. As of yet, no adults in the school system have been arrested. But whether or not any is, the bottom line has to be that for a young person to come to our country and find not welcoming friends and supportive neighbors but abuse so unbearable that she concludes the only way to escape is into to abandon life itself—that has to give us all pause to think carefully about the kind of society in which we live.

Like Phoebe, little Artyom was also an immigrant to our country, also a child, also someone seeking a better life in a strange new place. It seems ridiculous to compare their fates by asking which one suffered the more unbearable form of rejection, the girl turned on by a school so entirely that she felt herself utterly friendless and totally alone or the little boy told by his mother that he had failed to meet her standards of behavior and was being returned to his long-since-forgotten homeland as though he were a puppy whom the people at the pound had promised was already house-trained but who turned out to be anything but. But even if we decline to compare their stories to determine who had it worse, we are still left knowing something about our country that most of us would prefer not to know. That for all we vaunt ourselves as a nation of immigrants, we also tolerate people in our midst who are so rejecting of immigrants that they behave like Artyom’s mother or Phoebe’s attackers. (In this regard, I should also mention that I am writing this as the jury in Riverhead is attempting to decide whether to find a young man from Suffolk County guilty of the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant to our country from Ecuador who was killed by a gang of six teenagers in the fall of 2008 apparently against the background of their extreme hatred specifically of Hispanic immigrants to our country.)

Obviously, there are good people in our country, people eager and anxious to welcome immigrants to our shores, people who cannot bring themselves to forget that all citizens other than Native Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. (And I continually read that even the Native American tribes were not true indigenes here either, but were the descendants of people who crossed the ancient land bridge between Siberia and Alaska about 12,000 years ago. So we really are all immigrants here.) Are we in danger of losing that specific part of our American ethos? Are these stories I’ve been writing about isolated incidents relating to three unrelated people from three unrelated countries or do they suggest a pattern of contempt for newcomers gaining traction in our generally tolerant land? Surely there are many successful, happy immigrants in our midst from Ecuador, Russia, and Ireland! But that is not really the point. Of course, there are people who came here successfully. There are people in our own Shelter Rock community who themselves were and are successful immigrants to this country from other places! But there are also these three, a grown man, a teenage girl, and a little boy, to consider. Perhaps we would do well to respond to their stories by asking what we ourselves are doing to welcome strangers in to our midst. Could we begin by wondering if there are perhaps Jewish people in our own neighborhood who haven’t come forward to join the synagogue because they don’t speak English well or even because they simply don’t know how to find us? Might we not respond to these stories of rejection and violence by asking how we as a community are helping newcomers in this place to settle in, to become Americans like we or our parents or grandparents once did? Might it not be a noble way to respond to these sad stories by asking what we can do to create an atmosphere that will make newcomers eventually feel as comfortable referring to themselves as Americans as we ourselves do, many of us only a generation or two removed from Europe or wherever our families originated and others of us who came here personally as immigrants?

I chose to write about these terrible stories not just to depress, but to inspire. We cannot save Phoebe’s or Marcelo Lucero’s lives. We probably cannot do anything meaningful for poor little Artyom either. But could there be other children out there we could help? It does not behoove us as caring, thoughtful, generous people not to know the answer to that question. So maybe the real question we need to ask is how can we go about finding out. I’m not sure how exactly we might go about doing that. But it doesn’t seem reasonable that such a simple question should prove impossible to answer accurately. But what the way to go about finding an answer might turn out to be…that’s what I’d like to invite you all to think on with me and to see if we can’t come up with a meaningful approach to finding that answer, and then a plan for translating that answer into an equally meaningful plan forward, one that befits a community that self-defines as the descendants of people who were once foreigners in a land not their own and whose Bible forbids them ever to lose track of that specific part of their history.

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