By Martin Moran
A few years ago I had the privilege of serving as a French-speaking interpreter for a group of refugees, many of them survivors of torture, who were seeking asylum in the United States. Most of the immigrants I worked with were from war-torn regions of Africa. They all happened to be Muslim. In recent weeks, with the issuing of a travel ban against seven predominately Muslim countries and news of many immigrants being deported, I have been thinking constantly about the men and women I worked with, especially one young man whom I’ve called Siba in my recent book, All the Rage: A Quest.
I first met him at New York’s Saint Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital on a frigid February day. We were there for his first required medical interview. We shook hands, and I was startled by his bright smile. I realized I was expecting someone broken.
The doctor asked Siba questions about his time as a political prisoner, details of his arrest and harrowing escape. Then, I watched as the doctor held a yellow measuring tape between Siba’s shoulder blades, documenting the length and breadth of each scar carved across his back. This was evidence the judge would need, proof of cruelty written across the body. These notes would be attached to an I-589, a Department of Homeland Security Application for Asylum. At times, the doctor touched a particular scar and asked: “Now, is this from the wooden club, or was this from the broken glass?” I translated all this, glancing now and again out the window toward the Metropolitan Opera House, shaken and amazed at Siba’s calm as he described how the soldiers bent and bound his limbs around the glass, how they tightened the ropes and yelled questions, beating him about the head and back until he passed out.
“This happened how many times?” the doctor asked.
“Did you always lose consciousness?”
“Yes. Each time, I woke up back in my cell.”
When we finished that initial interview the doctor had said, “I will write the best report I can for you. The United Sates would be lucky to have you.” Siba burst into sobs.
Sometimes I would take the PATH train out to Jersey City to the International Institute, an organization founded in 1917 by a group of civic-minded New Jersey Moms who wanted to help immigrants adjust to life in America. (It’s doors closed recently due to lack of funding.) It was always a bustling place—filled with people in turbans and saris and the smell of all kinds of foods. English classes and counseling and game nights. There, I played Scrabble, shared soda, and even went bowling with groups of men and women from across the globe. And none, in my experience, were more polite and studious, abstemious and respectful, than Siba and his fellow Muslims.
On one of my visits with him, on a day I was no doubt struggling with my own problems, I remember bursting out, asking him, “Aren’t you angry? I mean, don’t you hate them for what they did to you?” He proceeded to explain to me that the men who took him prisoner had never had a chance to go to school like he had. That most of them had nothing.
“They are analphabet,” he said. “They don't know what they are doing.”
I stood amazed at his capacity for compassion.
A few years after our very first meeting, he called. His voice was seven pitches higher: “Monsieur Martin!” He told me how he cried like a kid, that his lawyer did too, when the judge pronounced the words: Asylum Granted. I suggested that we organize a celebratory dinner but he told me there was only one thing that he wanted to do.
“Martin, I want to go to the Statue of Liberty and take a picture there.”
I’ve lived in New York for over thirty years. I’m ashamed to say I had never visited the statue. I met him on a sunny Saturday downtown near the sandwich shop where he worked washing dishes. We hiked south to Battery Park to board the boat. There, among the huddled masses yearning to get through security, the engines fired up and you might have thought we were taking a trip to Tahiti or Thailand on that ten-minute ride across New York Harbor to Liberty Island. Siba dashed from railing to railing pointing at the shifting skyline. “Look, Martin, New Jersey!” he cried. And then, over the sound of the churning wake, he sang out to me: “You are lucky to be born here, Martin. Here you have justice!”
I believe I heard the word, the depth and truth of it, for the first time in my life.
Siba, who’d borrowed a camera for the day, rushed off the boat taking photos from every possible angle. Welcome to “Liberty Enlightening The World,” one brochure proclaimed. That’s her official title, the name bestowed by the French Government when they offered her as a gift. We turned to a friendly ranger, a dark-haired fire-plug of a guy. His nametag said Brad.
“Why are there seven spikes on her head?” Siba asked.
“They represent the seven continents,” Brad replied.
At one point, Siba noticed something I had never known or heard of. A broken chain and shackle carved beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. “Sir, what does that stand for?”
Ranger Brad pointed and said, “That represents the smashing of tyranny.”
I last spoke with Siba a few years ago. He was living in Houston driving a delivery truck, saving like mad to bring his wife and child to America.
I happen to live on a street named for Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. She is the patron saint of immigrants. She came from Italy. She was the first American citizen to be canonized. In her years here, she managed to found sixty-seven schools, hospitals, and orphanages. I pass a bronze bust of her every day on my way to the subway. Her body is actually encased in glass beneath the altar of the church right across the street from where you catch the A train. These past days, it has been particularly painful and poignant to glance up at her bright face. I realize I have been looking for her reaction to this sudden and unwarranted slamming of our doors to so many immigrants. Most of whom have been thoroughly vetted and waiting for a long time for the sanctuary they desperately need. I hear Mother Cabrini’s voice, along with so many of my fellow countrymen reminding us that, though it is not easy, we are called to compassion. Not fear. That we are, as Siba so often and so vividly reminded me, a beacon for the world. It’s not a tight fist that is raised over our harbor, but a bright torch.
About the Author
Martin Moran’s previous memoir, The Tricky Part, received the 2005 Lambda Belles Lettres Award, and his one-man lay of the same name was honored with a 2004 Obie. His recent play, All the Rage, won the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Solo Show. Moran’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and the New York Times. As an actor he has appeared on television and on and off Broadway in many shows, including Spamalot, Titanic, Cabaret, Bells Are Ringing, Floyd Collins, 3 Kinds of Exile, and A Man of No Importance. Moran lives in New York City with his husband, Henry Stram. Follow him on Twitter at @.