A little over a year ago I rode into Turkey on my loaded down bicycle on the same day that protests broke out over the country. ISIS had fought its way into the largely Kurdish town of Kobani, Syria and much of Turkey exploded in anger and frustration over the timid response from the Turkish government. I wasn’t sure what I was riding into. I made the decision that I would rely on the reception that I could intuitively feel from the people of Turkey. Warm greetings would keep me pedaling forward. Cold and wary looks would have me rethinking my route.
Not two hours after watching the news of protests, tear gas, stores windows smashed by rocks, and gun-yielding police pushing back mobs I was waved over by a road crew taking a break for lunch. I have posted about this before, but it bears repeating again. Without knowing what I was getting into I had been invited to share part of the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al Adha, that commemorates Abraham’s faithfulness to Allah (or Yahweh or God for those who need translation).
After the initial religious festivities of Eid al Adha the sacrificed goats and lambs are consecrated for three different purposes–one-third goes to immediate family, one-third is given to distant relatives and neighbors, and one-third is reserved for the poor and the stranger. I didn’t even know that I was playing a part until later someone told me that the Muslim men were looking for opportunities to share their sacred meal with the poor and stranger. I just happened to ride by at the right moment.
We shared what was at times an awkward meal as I was already full from a hotel breakfast and they could not allow for the sacrificial goat to be wasted. Once I finished the meat portion of the meal we all lightened up, took pictures of each other, and watched as one man made a humorous attempt at riding my bike in his work boots, tar covered pants, and with a cigarette hanging from his lip. I parted with the traditional embrace and Turkish double kiss with men I had only known for an hour.
I write this as America reacts to the suicide bombings in Paris and the growing number of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from their beloved homeland. And I am sad, very sad. I get all the rational, common sense arguments for shutting our borders to Syrian refugees in the hope that it will also close the borders to potential terrorists. But at what cost? We may save a few dozen lives or maybe even a few hundred lives. But will we have lost our soul and our way as Americans?
Will the Statue of Liberty need to be dismantled and placed in the Smithsonian as a relic of our past? On the placard it will read, “1886-2015: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Will the Statue of Liberty still stand tall in her harbor while we avert our eyes too ashamed to look directly at her proud face and torch of freedom?
One year ago I had every reason to turn back from Turkey. ISIS was looking for Americans to kidnap and hold as ransom to fund their brutal tactics. Protests were breaking out in twenty cities in the country. People had warned me that it was too risky of a time. And I was as vulnerable as could be riding a bicycle in foreign territory with my Swiss Army knife my only weapon. But I decided that fear couldn’t win.
Were there risks? Yes. But the greatest risk was to wither up in the face of danger and live my life in fear.
The greatest risk was to let terror win.
We can’t let terror win. I don’t think this is a battle between terrorists and peace-loving people. This is a battle between liberty, freedom, compassion and fear. One year ago I was the poor and the stranger in a foreign land and a band of Muslim brothers welcomed me and shared a religious feast with me. We have to open our arms to the vulnerable and the stranger. We have to keep our borders open because that is who we are. That is who we always have been. That is what it means to be American.
Fear can’t win. Fear can’t win. Goddamnit, we can’t let fear win.