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Sean Kirst: Stories of suffering, triumph from those who fled nations Trump mocked

It was one of those stories that you had to read twice, to fully take it in.

In a meeting with lawmakers Thursday, President Trump reportedly said this nation does not need more people from countries that he labeled with a well-known pejorative, a graphic affront. It was part of a discussion involving immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and the collected nations of Africa.

For the record, the president took to Twitter Friday morning to deny using "that language," claiming Democrats in the room invented it. While the White House did not deny he made the remark, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was at the table, said it was not only a word the president used, but one he used repeatedly.

The slur, in itself, would be bad enough. What is most jarring about the entire conversation is the way it turns a great American truth upside-down, the way it directly equates people from suffering nations with the ugliest and cruelest conditions that they fled.

It is a false and heartbreaking comparison. It flies in the face of our national story, from the Irish who came here to escape a devastating famine to the generations of Jews who found safety from persecution and genocide.

Trump remark disparaging Haiti, Africa draws swift condemnation

The ethic displayed by these new arrivals is often as far as imaginable from the brutal nature of this White House conversation. Men and women once stripped of safety and decency turn their lives into statements of American gratitude.

The proof is in the upstate tales that quietly happen all around us.

I think of the Somali-Bantu children learning at an afterschool program run by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, on the West Side. Many of their families witnessed bloodshed or suffered unbearable loss. The children, in many cases, went years without any traditional schooling.

"They had absolutely nothing," said Sister Kathleen Dougherty, who coordinates the program. "They've endured so much, yet they come here and try to find jobs, and they send their children to school, and they just get right at it.

"If President Trump would come and spend one day with our children," she said, "he would see things a little differently."

Sean Kirst: Relentless sisters harvest hope on the West Side

I think of John Dau, a "Lost Boy" of the Sudan. While still a child, separated from his family amid terror, he fled for months through the wild after government troops burned his village. He dug by hand in the dirt to help bury his friends, a rule of dignity and civility observed even by these starving children.

Dau managed to survive until he reached a refugee camp. As he grew older, stripped of home and  family, he sat in a threadbare school and listened to his elders. They warned him that knowledge and learning would be his only hope, a discipline he'd need almost as a means of faith.

He bought in. Eventually, he brought that passion here. His new freedom was a gift. Dau earned degrees, shared his story and started a foundation.

Before long, he became a legend.

I think of Majay Donzo, forced as a child to leave everything behind – even a favorite doll – in the frantic rush to escape bloodshed in her Liberian hometown of Monrovia. As a teenager, she offered gratitude for her father, who insisted she keep her focus on learning. She spoke of how her mother would rise in a refugee camp at 3 a.m. to boil water, allowing Majay and her siblings to bathe before school.

The great dream, the gateway, was public education. On her first day of school in the United States, Majay rose when the teacher walked into the room, a gesture of respect she'd learned in childhood.

Her American classmates, stunned at such a thing, began to laugh at her.

Majay was a star student. Today, she is a college graduate, working with AmeriCorps to help stem the opioid epidemic, a young woman who hopes her next step will be medical school.

Finally, I think of Nasser Fitwi, blinded by measles as a child in his native Eritrea. He overcame that condition to become a literature instructor, a man who triumphed over daunting odds, until upheaval changed his life and made him a refugee.

In this nation, at first, he was a blind man, alone. I remember seeing him from a distance, a slender guy with a cane who made his way between snow banks on busy streets.

His life, at every step, involved transcending barriers. He quickly emerged as a quiet leader in his new community, an interpreter for others overwhelmed by a new language, a man who pushed aside his  struggles to lift up those around him.

Does a newcomer like this bring value to this nation?

He is blind only to those who never learn his story, to those who truly are the ones who fail to see.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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