Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

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Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

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With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Immigrants, Refugees, Human Beings

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“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”

His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.

Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.

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Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.

Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)

Among the organizations working to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants on our own soil is the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Senior Program Director Rev. Deborah Lee was speaking of her group’s work at the interfaith event where Antonio told his own story.

“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”

The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”

Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.

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The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.

I . . Am . . The Refugee

Refugees are human beings

“If I’d been caught,” she said quietly, “I would have been sent back to North Korea where I would have faced prison, or possibly execution.” She had escaped into China, only to find that refugees were not exactly welcome there. “My parents (who had helped her, and a brother, escape) told the government that my brother and I were dead. For several years, they were closely watched because the government didn’t believe them, but it is somewhat better now.”

The young woman with a shy smile spoke through an interpreter at an event at Calvary Presbyterian Church, in recognition of World Refugee Day – which you may have missed, in the tsunami of news/tweets/rumors about suffering refugees, undesirable immigrants and assorted boundary walls and fences.

The young woman speaker eventually made it to Thailand, and from there to the U.S. where nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Transitions are helping her piece together a life. It took her seven years. She does not expect ever to see her parents again. We were asked not to take pictures, to protect her.

At a later event on the same day another young woman spoke. Her English was immeasurably better than my Pashto or Dari would be if I studied really hard for the next 10 years. Born in 1992 into an educated Afghan family, she repeatedly cited having educated parents as setting her apart. Most Afghan women of her generation (as with other generations) face a life strictly limited to the confines of the family home. But by the time she was five, the Taliban had taken over and educating girls was forbidden. In her city there was one underground school where girls could learn to read and write, and she and her parents decided to risk it. During regular government inspections the children would hide textbooks in garbage cans. But she survived, and received a rudimentary education that was greatly expanded after 2011 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. (“In our prayers, we gave thanks for the Americans,” she said. That was surprising, and gratifying, to this American reporter.)  She came to the U.S. on a student visa several years ago. By the time she graduated it was clear that she could not return to her country – which has known nothing but war for forty years – to help young women and girls as her hopes and plans had been. So she became a refugee. A refugee is, by definition, “a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, famine, persecution or natural disaster.”

“So many things are hard,” the young woman from Afghanistan says. “For instance, pronunciation. You want to renew your ‘weesa,’ and they don’t know what you’re saying because it’s ‘visa.’” Other things are harder still. Because she was on a student visa, she could not work. After graduation she “couch-hopped,” staying wherever she could, “because the only people I knew were my professors and my classmates.” She has now applied for asylum — a process that also prohibits working for at least 150 days. She was fortunate to find a family who has taken her in, and she hopes to make a life in the U.S.

For many in the audience, it was hard to imagine the endless bureaucratic mazes refugees encounter and patiently endure — possibly because they often come from countries where government bureaucracy is a daily fact of life. It was even harder to imagine spending two or three years of one’s life (a minimum) or well over a decade (an average) in a refugee camp.

Refugees - UNHCR

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 33,972 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. That is 33,972 people every day. There are, UNHCR reports, 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. That is sixty-five and three/tenths million homeless/stateless people. Human beings. Many of these are simply desperate to escape; a small percentage hope – and yearn – to return to their homeland if it can be safe (and livable) again.

The United States, a nation of immigrants (we won’t get into the viewpoint of Native Americans here) accepts a few thousand refugees per year.

This writer felt, at the end of the day, she should go home and count her blessings.

The Afghan woman, now – though a long way from citizenship still – an American woman, was asked what those in the audience could do to help.

“Support any of the nonprofits that work to help refugees,” she said. “If you have money, that’s good. But if not, you can give your time – or your prayers.”

But the big thing is, both of these refugees said, echoing the clergy of all faiths who have been speaking out in recent days, not only to give something, but simply to see other individuals not as ‘the other,’ but as members of the community of humankind we share.

Repeatedly, citizens and refugees alike said, somewhat wishfully, “Open your hearts.”