October 2016

02 Oct On Refugees, Poisoned Skittles and Sport

From “Your Weekend” magazine 1.10.16

Wife-and-husband social commentators Michele A’Court & Jeremy Elwood write a weekly column. This week, Jeremy goes first…


Early this week, a baseball pitcher named Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident off the coast of Miami, Florida. He was originally from Cuba, and defected to the US at the age of 15 on his fourth try, having been caught and imprisoned on the previous three. On that fourth attempt, he dove into the water to rescue a fellow passenger who had been swept overboard, only to discover it was his own mother. He wasn’t a great baseball player as a kid, but he loved the game, so he trained hard and by the time he finished high school, the Miami Marlins were willing to take a gamble and draft him.


It worked out pretty well.


He was voted rookie of the year in 2013, and this year was on track to finish the season as one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball.


He was 24 years old.


It’s an incredible story with a tragic ending, and if you’re a sports fan, or just a human being with a heart, I encourage you to Google his name and read more about it.


It also comes on the heels of Donald Trump Junior proving that being a xenophobic douchebag can be hereditary. I don’t encourage you to Google his tweet comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of poisoned Skittles, as it was so inane that it doesn’t deserve any more attention than it has already had, but if you need to get a frame of reference, go ahead.


Ok, done? Need a minute to wash your eyes?


What these two stories illustrate to me is the gap between what people fear immigrants will bring to a country and the potential of what they might bring. Those who fear that a few hundred (or even a few thousand, unlikely as that may sound given the reluctance of our politicians to allow a halfway respectable quota in) refugees coming to New Zealand will somehow take over “our” culture, religion or dress sense – you know, like the British did – are not only out of touch with reality, but also blind to more positive possibilities.


What if one of those refugees is our next great cricketer? Or writer? Or scientist? Or baseball player? (We do play it here, quite well too.)


And if they aren’t, you know what? That’s ok too. They might just be your next mechanic, or hairdresser, or Uber driver. They might be your neighbour, your colleague, or your friend, or you may never meet them, they may have no impact on your life whatsoever.


But by allowing them to come here, we would be making an immeasurable difference to theirs, and that’s a gamble I’m willing to make.


From Michele A’Court…


There are a lot of things I like about sharing a house with someone who was born in a different country from me, who has different interests and passions, and who introduces me to pockets of culture I might have otherwise missed.


Baseball, for one. During long, grim New Zealand winters, North America’s favourite summer game plays on our television. This is a game-a-day sport, not a once-a-week fixture. I’ll catch the odd innings as I pass through the living room on my way from office to kitchen, occasionally abandoning work altogether to watch big moments like my baseball hero, the Angels’ Albert Pujols, hit yet another record-breaking home run.


But it’s in dealing with life events that baseball most impresses me. The Miami Marlins’ press conference announcing the death of Jose Fernandez was a snapshot of what America – otherwise characterised by a Presidential campaign fuelled with hate, anger and stupidity – looks like at its best.


The Marlins are a multi-cultural team – African-American, Latino, white. Players and management spoke in Spanish and English. Everyone talked about being a family. Few families look as ethnically diverse as this, but family isn’t about ethnicity – it’s about living, working and playing together, right? There’s the family we are born into, and then there’s the one we make.


Marlins President David Samson said of Jose: “The magnanimity of his personality transcended culture, religion and race… He was a model for Cuban Americans and for all people who need to work harder than most to have freedom… He would say to me, ‘You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom really.’”


That, Samson said, was the gift Fernandez had given them. The kid from Cuba who had made them understand America better. Which is so often what refugees do.


I understand the fear that someone like Donald Trump Jnr is tapping into with his “bowl of Skittles” metaphor. But people aren’t candies and I’m heartened that, in NZ, two recent polls reveal most Kiwis believe we should invite more refugees here, that our current 1,120 a year is not enough.


Plus, it is worth remembering, in the interest of perspective, that the people who threaten us aren’t always from somewhere else. After watching the Marlins’ press conference, I watched our local news. Wellington Lions rugby player Losi Filipo was let off charges for assaulting two men and two women because of the effect a conviction would have on his rugby career.


If I was Trump, I might ask, “If I had a bowl of thugs and I told you some of them might play rugby really well, would you let them all off without conviction?” Apparently, the answer this week was yes.


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