Image: Adul Sam-on in the cave, photo adapted from the Hindi First Post.
I woke this morning to the news that the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand have been rescued alive, and are now in the hospital. That was wonderful news, and people all over the world are relieved.
Several outlets reported that a key element in the rescue was the contribution of Adul Sam-on, a member of the team. Adul was described by the New York Times as “the stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch.” He was the only English speaker in the group, and he handled the communication with the British divers who originally found the boys on July 2:
Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, Adul politely communicated to the British divers his squad’s greatest needs: food and clarity on just how long they had stayed alive. -NYT, 7/10/18
Adul Sam-on’s impressive language skills were hard earned. He had been born in Myanmar, but he did not have Burmese citizenship. His ethnic group, the Wa, have a troubled history relative to the Myanmar government. They live in the “Golden Triangle” area of Southeast Asia, and are associated with drug production and trafficking. His parents were able to smuggle him to a church in Thailand where he has lived since he was small, attending the Ban Wiangphan School in Chiang Rai province. They clearly wanted something other than drugs and gangs for their son.
Now let’s look at Adul Sam-on through a different lens, the lens he would face at the US border. He has the following pro’s and con’s:
Pro: Young, healthy, intelligent, multi-lingual, good at sports. Now has shown his translation skills in a highly stressful setting, performing with aplomb. He is the pride of his school, beloved of his teachers.
Con: Stateless person. No passport. Refugee. His tribe is known to be involved in the drug trade. Sounds like there was trouble in his old neighborhood, too.
I think it’s safe to say that were he to turn up at the US border, he’d wind up in the custody of ICE, labeled a “lawbreaker,” with extra worries about possible drug connections. Even though he has a lot to offer any nation who takes him, we wouldn’t want him. We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want refugees.
What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with us, that we are fearful of the Adul Sam-on’s of the world? Immigrants are responsible for less crime than native-born US citizens. Immigrants can add a lot to a society, bringing things like language skills and their drive to succeed.
How many of the young adults in ICE custody or under threat of deportation are potential leaders, potential teachers, potential communicators? How many of them could shine under pressure like that young man? We’ll never know.
The Torah commands not once, not twice, but 36 TIMES that we are to “love the stranger.” It reminds us that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt. And for the last 2000 years we have more often been strangers than we have been truly at home, because we were stateless and unwanted.
The current immigration policy of the US Government is racist, bigoted, cowardly, and selfish. We don’t deserve a Adul Sam-on; I’m glad he has a bright future somewhere else.