Slightly past six my roommate and I made our way out of Old Campus, joining the mass of students, professors, and children gathered on Cross Campus. That night, the harsh shadows usually created by street lamps were softened by the warm glow of candles cradled in hands and the cool toned “SOLIDARITY” projected against the façade of the Sterling Memorial Library. Behind me, there was a father carrying his daughter on his shoulders and teaching her how to hold her candle upright. “Here, do it this way so it won’t burn the cover or drip on you.”
I am not American and neither is my roommate. We are two international freshmen from Singapore and Lebanon. The night of the vigil outside Sterling on the 29th of January 2017, we started at the fringe, wiggling our way through little gaps in the crowd in a bid to try and get into earshot of the speakers before finally finding a spot peering out of the Berkeley courtyard.
Yet, as silent faces lit by candlelight slowly came to be accompanied by the voices of individuals speaking on and about their thoughts on the executive orders that had come to pass, I found myself feeling more, instead of less, alone amidst a crowd that was supposed to be gathered in support of the communities that these orders set out to alienate. I cannot reproduce the speeches that I heard verbatim and will not try to. But I recall the fervent assertions that this, this discrimination on account of citizenship, on account of race, this rejection of refugees, this was not America. I heard assertions of speakers growing up viewing and believing in an America that was kind, compassionate, and welcoming. I heard speakers proudly sharing about how a Muslim family had been welcomed by American synagogues. I heard assertions that these orders ran against the foundation of what America was built upon. I heard the cheers that all of these assertions received in affirmation. But I could not cheer along.
At a vigil resisting the decisions of a Presidency whose central campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again”, the absence of a critical look at, and acknowledgement of, American history up till this point was jarring. What about the colonization of Native Americans, what about Angel Island and its immigrants in the early 20th century? Were these all, not America? Standing amidst the crowd in the vigil, I felt like I had no place in it if I did not want to join in the cheers extolling the virtues of America. The vigil was titled “Candlelight Vigil in Support of Immigrant & Refugee Communities” yet the speeches of the night spoke more about America than about any of the communities directly affected by the ban. At my most critical, it felt to me more like a people gathered in solidarity to salvage the image and ideal of a country that they felt was being threatened instead of a people truly gathered in support of the immigrants and refugees whose lives were being threatened by these laws.
As these speeches drew to a close, I stole a glance at my phone only to notice that I had missed two calls from my roommate’s mother back in Lebanon. My roommate and I had been working together for the entirety of that Sunday and she had not checked her phone at all. On any other Sunday, there would have been no reason for her anxiety. When we talk about our thoughts on the ban, my roommate tells me about her anxiety, being from an Arab country that is often perceived in a similar light as the countries affected by the ban. Yet, she is quick to tell me that she, still, is lucky. Lebanon is not on the list of countries affected by the ban, it is a country that is largely peaceful, she is here, in America, at Yale, by choice – if she had to, she has family, friends, an entire life still waiting for her back in Lebanon.
As an international student from Singapore, I cannot claim to understand what it must feel like to be in the position of those directly affected by the ban. But I can share the perspective of one, maybe two, international students at the vigil between Cross Campus and Sterling; I can share how being in the crowd that night was an alienating experience.
This is not a critique of all the people who gathered and who spoke that day at the vigil. It is hard to speak out on such a sensitive issue in front of such a large crowd. I know I am scared to share this opinion on a public platform, I imagine it must have taken much courage for every speaker to share theirs that day too. Their voices are important voices, and their opinions are important opinions – their visions of what America stands for are the reasons why I continue to be grateful to be here. But there is a threat, and there are fears, beyond that of what America stands for, that this ban poses. The missed calls I received from my roommate’s mother that night in the middle of a vigil was just one small indication and reminder of that. And that night, at the vigil, as a student who was not looking to rally behind a nationalistic cause, it felt like the fears and worries of those directly alienated by the ban were secondary.
My experience is not representative of what every non-American might have felt at that vigil. I believe there were those who were comforted, those who felt a resonance with and gratitude for the speeches delivered at the vigil. In the time that I was simply standing amidst lit candles, out of earshot of the speeches, there were numerous speakers I missed and if your speech addressed what I am saying here, I apologise. To all who spoke and who were present, I thank you for the reminder that people want to make a difference. But from one member of the Yale community to another, I believe we can do better. I believe we can express our concern about and love for a country and place we view, or are coming to view, as home while recognizing its transgressions in the past. I believe we can speak about our own fears while providing the space and stage for those of others without requiring them to be tied back to our own.
Behind me in the vigil, a child was learning how to hold her candle upright in the crowd. Let us all learn how to wield our candles, hold them high in the crowd. Let them and let the photos of the night be a glowing reminder that there are people, so many people, who will invest time and effort into speaking up against policies that set out to alienate and discriminate. But let them not simply be empty or easy symbols, let us speak about the difficult realities, let us really give time to fears and stories that are not our own. Let our candles not glow only as a message to those whom we are resisting, let them glow because we are creating the warmth of home for those who have been told they do not have one here.