I have spent most of my adult life working with democracy and peace activists. These include people who have been imprisoned, tortured, exiled, whose family and friends have been destroyed by dictators or war or both, whose lives have been wrecked and sometimes rebuilt and sometimes wrecked again. It's not a pretty world we live in, but it's one we can make better.
I was thinking about Jose Fernandez, as all of us have been, and marveling at what he went through to get here, a refugee from an oppressive regime who risked his life to immigrate to the United States, who traveled here illegally and ended up becoming an American citizen. His name was well-known to the baseball world, but maybe not to the casual fan, until fate put him on a late night boat ride. So many Cuban ballplayers have risked their lives for a sip of the American Dream. We let them, because they are good at sports, but many others are turned away. Things are getting easier since relations with Cuba are thawing, and ballplayers will soon be able to play baseball in the US without risking their lives. It has been incredible to witness this turn of events, to watch history unfold, and I look forward to visiting Cuba one day in the near future.
Why do we value the lives of sports figures more than others? What if Jose had been a doctor instead, or an engineer, or a teacher? Would we mourn him, praise his daring journey to this nation of immigrants, congratulate him on becoming a citizen? Or would we call him a rapist and murderer and call for tougher measures to prevent his kind from getting in?
Given that most Americans have never left the country, let alone visited a refugee camp, they can't even fathom the conditions in which millions of human beings find themselves today, through no fault of their own. More than 60 million people are displaced in this world, meaning they have escaped war or oppression and have no home to return to. Most of them live in refugee camps, which can be tent cities or actual buildings, depending on where in the world and who are the people. The lucky few establish permanent residency somewhere else or even citizenship.
One stunning example of this contrast can be found in Lebanon, where I spent about a year over a two year period working with civil society organizations. After the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians in the early twentieth century, many Armenians found refuge in Beirut. They established a refugee camp that today is just a Beirut neighborhood, albeit with Armenian flavor. The Palestinians did not fare so well during the establishment and expansion of Israel after World War II. They live in dilapidated structures and enjoy few basic rights like citizenship or employment in many professions, as they have been restricted to menial labor. Poverty is rampant; the camps are often the sites of violence and bloodshed. You can go to the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud to the infamous Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatilla in a few minutes by car, yet they are two different worlds. Lebanon also has a million Syrian refugees (the Lebanese population is only four million), as well as refugees from Iraq. And that's just a tiny swath of land barely visible on a world map.
If your heart breaks for Jose Fernandez, if you are sending your "thoughts and prayers" to him and his family, please take some time, too, to think about so many others who have been through something similar as he had and how so many meet tragic ends that go unheralded. Maybe Jose's senseless death can help us to remember them, perhaps finding one ray of light in all the darkness. What is a life, after all, if it does not beget good? Why did we care so deeply about his death, though few of us knew him in life? Because humanity is deep down our true nature. In these times when it seems as if we are surrounded by cruelty and evil, we recognized good in that smile, and even the hardest of hearts felt a stirring, a reminder that the world is flawed but can be good, is probably more good than not.
I have to wonder if more people would care about Syrian refugees if they were good at sports. Sadly, I think the answer is "yes." Let's change that. I have to believe we can.