Travel bans, Arrival and Mr. Rogers

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Khawater Hussein (rear) plays in a Powder Puff football game in 2014.

By ERIC A. HOWALD

I’ve lost track of how many times the counters on the digital cameras I use as part of my job have reset themselves, and the cameras only reset after 10,000 pictures.

Most of those pictures will never – thankfully – see the light of day and the few I do remember wouldn’t cause me to extend all five fingers of one hand. But, every once in a while, an image sears into my memory. One of them is a photo of a McNary High School senior playing in the annual Powder Puff football game at the school in 2014.

In that photo, then-junior Gabby Jackson is running up the field slightly out of focus, but with her best “game face” on. Trailing Jackson is then-senior Khawater Hussein, bright-faced with a gleeful smile, under a hijab—the traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women. Eight months later, Khawater was chosen by her peers to deliver the commencement address at graduation. Her graduation cap rested atop her hijab during the ceremony. My heart swelled with unexpected pride in the students who found connection in her words and didn’t let differences in appearance cloud their hearts.

I thought of Khawater again as my family and I sat watching Arrival at a Salem theater recently. Without offering too many spoilers, here’s the gist of the movie: aliens descend on earth and it becomes the responsibility of a university professor to help the military decipher their language and intentions. What starts as an exploration of the unfamiliar quickly ramps up to crisis when several other countries, with their own teams working on the problem, go dark and stop communicating with the other teams putting the human race and the aliens on the path to conflict.

One moment in particular stuck out to me. Oddly, it had nothing to do with the characters in the film. It was a sweeping shot of the scene at one of the alien landing sites showing a throng of cars and campers, civilian onlookers and gawkers, being held at bay by a military barricade with the alien ship in the distance.

My 13-year-old daughter, Ameya, sat next to me during the movie and some of the implications of travel bans came into sharper focus. I couldn’t help but think of Ameya and Khawater being held apart from one another. I have no idea what deep reservoir of strength Khawater was tapping into on a daily basis to don an overt symbol of her Muslim faith, but I am certain I have never had to plumb such depths. The thought that my daughter’s chances to learn from such a woman – to share each other’s stories, the very thing that often so effectively bridges the gaps between people of different backgrounds – would be diminished by something like the hastily-deployed travel ban from seven predominately Muslim countries opened up a vacuum in my chest.

As I thought more on the movie and it’s implications, I was reminded of something once said by folk hero Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, whose PBS show was a major part of my childhood routines, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

It is possible that a travel ban might make some feel safer, but it seems like a flimsy layer of protection. Even with the most extreme vetting, or the most objectionable of interrogation tactics, it wouldn’t be enough to stop the most determined bad actors. Moreover, given the circumstances of recent mass attacks, bad actors don’t even have to visit our soil, they need only connect with someone already here and willing to be influenced.

There have already been many costs associated with the travel ban, from separating families to a diminished view of our country in the wider world, but there is no way to account for the opportunities we’ll miss out on if the ban is allowed to stand. The ban prevents – and excuses – us from doing the real work of connecting with our fellow world citizens. As hard as that work may be, it is likely the only sure path to security.

(Eric A. Howald is managing editor of the Keizertimes.)

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