October 24, 2018
“When people rely on surface appearances and false racial stereotypes,
rather than in-depth knowledge of others at the level of the heart,
mind and spirit, their ability to assess and understand people
accurately is compromised.” – Rev. James A. Forbes (retired pastor)
If I remember correctly, it was around 2006 when Ireland saw the arrival of 150,000 Polish immigrants. Known as “foreign nationals,” they were welcomed by some and not by others.
A Dublin taxi driver complained to me that crazy foreign nationals were now driving taxis. They not only got lost and created traffic hazards, they took the jobs from hard working Irish men. A tour bus driver told me that soon there would be foreign nationals serving as tour guides. “Imagine,” he said, “taking your groups around Ireland with a Pakistani driver.” A friend who works in the tourist industry complained that foreign nationals were taking hotel jobs away from hard working Irish nationals.
During that window of time, when the Irish economy was thriving, I had only pleasant taxi drivers and wonderful Irish bus drivers. But I did notice a difference at the various hotels. Most obvious was a language barrier. For example, I wanted to ship a box of gifts home to Oregon so I didn’t have to lug them around. I inquired at the front desk of my Dublin hotel. After several minutes of research, a very polite Polish man told me that the nearest UPS store was in a suburb of Dublin, perhaps a 20-minute taxi drive away. I stepped outside feeling frustrated because this didn’t seem right to me. Suddenly, around the corner came my bus driver. “Hey. There’s a UPS store just around the corner. Shall I carry your box for you?” Yep, the language barrier would have cost me dearly, both in time and money. But there’s another foreign national story that haunts me to this day.
My group of 22 women was staying at a lovely country hotel in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. Every hotel worker I met that year was from Poland. As a tour group, we were required to dine together, alone in a banquet room taking up several tables. There appeared to be only one waiter for us. A young man, tall and thin, likely Polish, tried to describe the dinner menu. I could see some of my travelers getting a little antsy. The beverage and bread course took several minutes to arrive, with a variety of mix-ups. Now more women in my group were getting annoyed. In whispered voices I heard things like:
“He can’t speak English. Why is he here?”
“This is bad business-. They should hire someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“Maybe they should stick with hiring Irish people, or at least people who speak English.”
I understood the annoyances, yet something didn’t sit well with me. Were we reducing a live human being to an ethnic stereotype? I found myself sitting quietly and just observing our waiter and my travelers. Although I knew our diners weren’t happy with the dining experience, I told them I would speak with the manager, and, they should still leave a tip. “Remember, we are guests in this country.”
When everyone had departed, I stayed around in hopes of speaking with the young man. He emerged from the kitchen, looking very sad and despondent. I apologized to him for my group’s impatience. He replied with a weak smile and shrug of his shoulders. After a long pause, I very gently asked, “Are you okay?”
Suddenly his head dropped as his shoulders drooped. I could barely make out his reply. “I got word this morning that my father in Poland died and I cannot go home to be with my family.” We both stood there in silence. All I could do was be his witness.
I see you.
I hear you.
I believe you.
Isn’t that what we all want? To be seen, heard and believed? Whether we are U.S. born, Irish born or a foreign national from wherever? I think about appearances with the immigration stresses in our country. Someone can appear one way—as a clumsy waiter—but underneath the appearance can be something vastly different—a real live human being with a broken heart. I think too about the millions of Celtic immigrants to the U.S., including my Connolly ancestors from Ireland and McKern ancestors from Scotland. Unless we are Native American, we are a nation of immigrants. As my grandfather-in-law, of German heritage, said on his death bed, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Have a listen to one of my favorite Irish ballads. Imagine what immigrant songs are in the hearts of those currently trying to come peacefully to the U.S.
Immigrant‘s Song Daniel O’Donnell – Cutting the Corn in Creeslough (County Donegal)