A Literal Hell Constructed for Children: Dina Nayeri on Family Separation
"What Happened to America’s Inner World?"
A few nights ago, I tried to teach my two-year-old daughter to sleep alone. The books say to be firm, to close the door and leave, and so I did. I tried to ignore her weeping, but she grew hysterical. When I went to check on her after ten minutes she was standing on the bed, her hands and pajamas and sheets covered in vomit. She shook as I held her. “Don’t leave me,” she begged. She looked terrified, as if I had left her in the dark forest of storybooks; as if home had disappeared behind the closed door.
My partner Sam cleaned up the mess and I took Elena into our bed. As she fell asleep, I said, “goodnight, my big girl.” She nuzzled closer and said, “goodnight, my ballerina.” Now I knew how scared she had been—a ballerina isn’t a dancer in her private world. It’s a degree of bigness, a step in shedding physical vulnerability. The steps of girlhood development go: baby, little girl, big girl, ballerina. Ballerinas are tall women who protect her, like fairy godmothers (they include mommy, nursery workers, a certain aunt) but aren’t the severe grownups out in the scary world, which she calls “America” because I travel there for work.
In the morning she mutters, “Hide fox.” She imagines herself in a dark forest, a small creature alone, stalked by a fox or a bear. She talks about animals that “eat all up Elena” and if I’m sad, she asks, “Was it a crocodile?” She wants me to hide with her, under the covers. We sit silently there for a minute, until she whispers “What-that-noise?” She shivers as we clutch each other as we wait for the fox (dad) to come get us. If she asks for cold milk, she means warm. Hot milk is three seconds longer in the microwave. Actual cold and hot milk aren’t milk.
Sometimes, Elena puts her hands up and says “big and small,” so I do pat-a-cake. She thinks the lyrics are “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, big and small.” Sizes aren’t big, medium, small. They’re daddy, mummy, baby (“need daddy cup!,” “want da mummy peach!”). Here’s what I know of her enchanted forest: child-eating bears aren’t dangerous. They eat you, but being eaten by a bear feels like a hug. Foxes could theoretically hurt you, but they’re just playing; they’re cads with itchy teeth. You have to know how to handle them. Crocodiles are wicked and scary and to be avoided, as are crabs. If she’s nervous, Elena asks a lot of questions. She doesn’t scream. She retreats into silence. A silent Elena is in distress. To Elena, yesterday is all of the past and tomorrow
Randomly in the middle of every day, I wonder who translates the secret language of those children stuck in border cages. I learn from the news that no one hugs them, that no one even bothers to bathe them or change their clothes. So, probably no one listens to their magical talk.
Elena panics when she loses control of her sensations. I think she may have inherited some of my OCD, and I know just what she’s feeling, the fire in her throat, when she grits her teeth and shakes, her fists ball up as she searches something to bite. I look for one sock that’s tighter or higher than the other. If I’ve taken control away, if I wiped her nose or kissed her cheek, all I have to do is put it back and she’ll stop wailing. Putting back a kiss is a precise thing: it is quick, hard, and you can’t seem to enjoy it. If you complete a zipper, you must unzip and let her do it. If you rub a hurt too soon, she will have to return to the scene of her fall and touch the knee to the rock again. These things cool her anger. They matter, because she can drive herself to vomiting when she senses something off.
For weeks at odd moments, this store of knowledge has transported me to the cages. I wonder how long it would take for a stranger to decipher each unique toddler tongue. What if the stranger isn’t allowed even to offer a cuddle or a kiss?
If I’m gone inexplicably, Elena’s personality changes. What happens to the wonderland in a child’s head when her mother or father disappears? The forest changes color for a while. Maybe the fire in the throat rages on forever, toothy crocodiles creep out a little farther from the river, and foxes stop playing games.
For the longest time, I thought I had left home behind in Isfahan. It was hard to see then that a piece of home did come with us. We had our mother, the guardian of our waking imaginations. Parents do this instinctively: filling their children’s secret worlds with sensory delights. When I was eight, my mother took my brother and me and ran from Iran. She was a Christian convert, and she fell into all kinds of dangers. In Iran, I had attended three years of Islamic school, under a sweaty headscarf, chanting garbage in rows of girls—it was an escape for me too. I had lived inside the dark forest; and yet, leaving was scary. We left my father behind and, in the 30 years since, I’ve only seen him four times.
In escaping Iran, my roots tore, but my mother worked hard to make it an adventure. In Dubai, where we hid for ten months (the first leg of our journey), she told us stories and we played games. We pretended the hostel bed we shared was a ship, and we tucked in our feet as we squealed at shark sightings. We pretended to be one step ahead of the hunters. I imagined the room as island patches; bridges would appear when I learned English words or memorized times tables. My brother vowed to build a castle for my mother in our new home. We were heroes destined for a glorious fate: America, the land of the good.
America was enchanted. We opened up an honored place for it in our private universe. We incorporated it into our mother tongue, even as the language of our imaginations transformed with exile and rootlessness. The waiting was agony, but after 16 months, America swung its doors wide and waved us in. I felt a rush of welcome so intense, I still fight back tears every time I’m welcomed at JFK. Though the welcome didn’t come without expectation or complication, on the day we arrived, it was simple. I was ten years old, my big, bustling world reduced to three. We had just landed in a strange airport full of foreign sounds; and yet, people came for us. Five years later, a football stadium full of born-and-bred American heartlanders cheered as we were declared their fellow citizens. That happened—I tell myself daily that I didn’t dream it.
I remember that our welcome was loosely related to our situation as Christian converts. And I remember that, when we told our story, our Oklahoma hosts were most alarmed at the atrocities of the Islamic Republic. It’s scary enough, for example, to be kidnapped or robbed or blackmailed. If you’re kidnapped, a whole complex infrastructure of the good-state comes looking for you. But what if the state is the one doing the kidnapping? “I can’t even imagine,” they would whisper, heads shaking—and they were right; if the state is doing the harm, no one will ever come for you. “Well, thank god you got out,” they said.
I grew happy, comfortable, safe. I suppose there were things I didn’t see. Something began to shift in the atmosphere. 9-11 happened. Now the children of the same kind people who welcomed us cry out for closed doors. What did I miss? Other tragedies have made Americans better, braver, more protective of the weak. What ghastly thing happened in their collective psyche that they should want to shut themselves in, turning their backs on children with actual monsters nipping at their heels? Did we earlier arrivals fail in the heroic quest of our childhood? In their stories, are we the villains? Were we always that? How did it happen that our neighbors should want to cage the next generation of us?
Last winter I traveled to two refugee camps in Greece. All day long, children played in the rows between metal Isoboxes or in the walkways of a dilapidated holiday village that had been repurposed for them. They peeked around corners waiting for any stimulus. They rushed parents or visitors. They had no school, no daily routine. Sometimes they approached English-speaking volunteers, pointed this way or that, trying to explain a need, then gave up and ran away.
I met a boy in Katsikas who asked, each time he met an adult, “What is your card?” When he told me about his teacher, or an uncle, the first thing he said about them was “he has a German card; he has a Greek card.” Already he had shrunk the universe down to a single trait, an identity card, a country willing to claim each person. I thought, this is the imagination wilting and graying, a sacred inner space collapsing in on itself. Who is guarding this boy’s mind?
Budding creativity is so easily crushed. Some things kill it slowly, like aimlessness, statelessness, lack of care and purpose. Others kill it fast.
What is happening to the spirits of those children tossed alone into South Texas cages? Toddlers don’t just need food and nightly bottles and a place to sleep. They’re vulnerable to a kind of solitude unfathomable to adults. They need their guides, their sense makers, the guardian of their fire.
It may seem like a silly, sentimental concern. But that fire molds the adult they will become. Will they be creative and joyful and eager to love? Or will they spend 80 years meandering through a barren wood, numb to the chill, to the gray, because they have no resources to warm it. Once snuffed out, the fire doesn’t easily reignite. When you’re two, it can vanish in a day, if that day is terrifying enough, or full of things that are impossible to process or wish away.
Tiny imaginations are colorful and simple; they thrill the five senses. Nothing is a symbol; everything is a symbol. Every triumph of creativity and industry and law and philosophy has its beginnings in the childish imagination, where complex hopes and fears are simplified to shimmering things and growling things and cackling things and sweet creamy things, just as storytellers are taught to render them. Children are storytellers. They have no thematic intentions. They’re only concerned with tastes and smells and shapes and colors. And yet, everything has meaning—for the one who knows the code.“Budding creativity is so easily crushed. Some things kill it slowly, like aimlessness, statelessness, lack of care and purpose. Others kill it fast.”
For a long time, home is a mother’s body. Then, it’s the place where every object is a wild other thing, a safe place to experiment without falling into chaos. In that first private language with our mothers and our fathers, we establish names for things that populate our inner world; we try to understand how they work and we create codes and signals and shared knowledge (Foxes are just playing. Crocodiles lie. Ballerinas watch out for you and one day you’ll grow into one). The first person who sees this wonderland lives there with you for a long time, feeding your creative spirit, propping you up, until you can fly on your own. At some point, your guardian sneaks away and leaves you there alone, and you rule that land, and nothing in it is too frightening to handle. They don’t leave you with the predators before you can fend them off alone.
When I was three or four, my mother gave me a book called Are You My Mother? It was about a newly hatched bird who fell out of the nest, and went out looking for his mother, asking the hen and the cow and the tractor, “Are you my mother?” We read it as a tragedy. When Elena sees an unsmiling person in a café, she says, “He wants his mummy.” She can fathom no worse fate than the loss of a parent. It pollutes the imagination, draining it of color. It impoverishes a child’s psyche, leaving her unable to create because she’s always glancing behind her, always in search of refuge.
Christians believe that hell is no more than separation from God, whom they call “The Father.” Hell isn’t snake pits and torture machines and fire and brimstone. That stuff was invented later. According to the Bible, hell is simply a permanent separation from the father, an eternity exiled from home.
A nightmarish forest of cages is now erected in south Texas—it is a literal hell constructed by a Christian nation for children. In all that fearful rhetoric and self-preservation, the logic of their own faith is lost: that children shouldn’t suffer for the sins of their parents, that no one is born entitled to more, that a believer with two shirts should give one away. Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
What happened to America’s inner world? What made it into a place of nightmare and meanness and hate? Where is America’s magic, the enchantment and goodness that we felt from across an ocean, as we made our way toward it? I’ve looked for an answer to this. Here and there, Christian acquaintances post that this isn’t what they intended; that they are holding on to one justification: the supreme court; all those endangered fetuses. In a chilling twist, they have convinced themselves that they’re fighting for children. It happens all the time in stories: they have slowly changed into hobgoblins, complicit in the caging of the innocent, in silencing their mother tongues and damning their spirits to destitution.