To Make Sense of American Politics, Immigrants Find Clues From Lands They Left

To Make Sense of American Politics, Immigrants Find Clues From Lands They Left

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Raji Alatassi watched a video clip of that recent cabinet meeting in Washington, in which the top officials in President Trump’s administration took turns heaping worshipful praise upon their leader. He felt he had seen it before.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Mr. Alatassi, 37, who was born and grew up in Syria and came to the United States nearly 20 years ago. “Just replace the English words with Arabic words, and you have a Syrian cabinet meeting. I left the Middle East for a reason.”

Waves of immigrants from around the world have transformed Houston into one of America’s most diverse and most international cities. They fled countries with dysfunctional governments, oppressive rulers, shoestring democracies, ethnic warfare and mass violence, and have found themselves rubbing elbows and bumpers in a wealthy Texas city where potholes, traffic, mosquitoes and pension reform are some of the biggest concerns. They are just as opinionated about America in the Trump era as any talk-show talking head, but their analyses, like their accents, are their own.

For some Houstonians whose origins are in countries far away, what they see in American politics baffles and disturbs them, as elements of the world they left behind seem to echo back to them in the news from Washington, as Mr. Alatassi discovered watching the cabinet meeting. And yet others reacted optimistically and emphasized their belief that the current political turmoil in this country did not compare to the failures and problems of the countries they fled.

“In how many other countries can you call the top elected official in the country a liar and get away with it?” asked Steve Le, who was 7 years old when he boarded a ship the day before the fall of Saigon in 1975.CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times

Steve Le was born in South Vietnam and was 7 years old when he boarded a ship the day before the fall of Saigon in 1975 with his family and other refugees. They resettled in Houston, and Mr. Le became a family physician and the third consecutive Vietnamese-American to represent District F on the Houston City Council. Mr. Le, a Republican who speaks with a subtle Texas twang, said he has never seen America more deeply divided, but added that nothing happening now compares to the world his parents knew in Vietnam. Watching the testimony of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was but one example, he said.

“In how many other countries can you call the top elected official in the country a liar and get away with it?” said Mr. Le, 50. “Although our democratic process looks dirty to some people, in the end it all comes out clean. We continue to be the longest-standing constitutional nation in the entire history of Earth, and it is because our forefathers designed that constitution so uniquely in balancing out the powers.”

The president’s cabinet meeting bothered Yohannes Tesfagibir, too.

Mr. Tesfagibir, 36, came to the United States eight years ago from his native country of Eritrea, an East African nation. Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s only president since it won independence in the 1990s, rules a country known as the North Korea of Africa, where national elections have never been held and young people are forced to work for extended periods in a national service program. Last year, a United Nations commission of inquiry said the national service program amounted to a form of slavery and accused the leaders of Eritrea of other crimes against humanity in a report denounced by government officials.

The scene in Washington reminded him of a scene in Eritrea. “It’s reminiscent of the one-man show, everyone working for the president instead of working for the country,” Mr. Tesfagibir said of the Trump cabinet session. “It was very suspicious.”

Still, although Mr. Tesfagibir said he was worried about the direction of the country and called Mr. Trump “a bully,” he said he never loses perspective.

“The reason I’m talking to you now is because I’m free,” he said.

Immigrants and refugees differed on drawing parallels between the political turmoil in America with the turmoil of their home countries.

Mr. Alatassi, the Syrian whose immigration status was caught up in atemporary limbo after Mr. Trump’s travel ban, said elements of the Trump presidency remind him of a Middle Eastern authoritarian regime: paternal leaders whose families dominate the power structure; policies and rhetoric harking back to a glorified and oversimplified past.

“The whole talk from Trump about, ‘I’m going to solve their problems, somebody else is the cause of the problems, and if you’re not with me, then you’re not patriotic’ — that’s the Middle East,” Mr. Alatassi said. 

But M. J. Khan, a Pakistani-American businessman, Republican and former councilman who became the first Muslim-American to win a seat on the city council in 2003, said there was no comparison politically or culturally between Trump-era America and the Middle East. Having the simple freedom to speak your mind and to pray, shop and live as you wish made any comparison moot.

“We used to get something called a ration card,” Mr. Khan said of growing up in Pakistan. “Food was rationed off, so every family would get a ration card based on how many people you have in the family, and you can only get that much food. There’s no freedom of any kind. You cannot go and talk against any person in authority at all. Over here, I can go to the city council next Tuesday and blast out the mayor.”

Mr. Khan, 67, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said he is as outraged as anyone else on Capitol Hill over Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“It makes me angry as an American,” Mr. Khan said. “The beauty of America was, and still is, fair and impartial elections. I’ve lived in a society where that was not the case. In spite of all the challenges we have, this is still by far the best system, the best society, the best country, you name it. Maybe because we have had it so good we are spoiled and we expect better.”

The political pulse of Houston’s global village is, if nothing else, intricately nuanced. With Russia dominating the headlines and drawing the ire of many Americans, the executive director of Houston’s Russian Cultural Center had a clear point to make: She was appalled at the unrestrained hostility toward Mr. Trump on display in popular culture and in the news media.

Sophia Grinblat, who came to the United States from Soviet-era Ukraine, is appalled by the scorn heaped on President Trump by some in media and entertainment. CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times

The director, Sophia Grinblat, who came to the United States from Soviet-era Ukraine in 1990, said two incidents — Kathy Griffin holding what looked like the decapitated head of Mr. Trump and the assassination of a Trump look-alike in a production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park — opened the door to the real-life violence that unfolded last week at the Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria.

“I spent 27 years here and I never hear anything in the media so anti-presidential, never, ever in my life,” Ms. Grinblat said. “If this is O.K. to make a play in a New York park how they killed the president and everybody laughed and think this is funny, and if this is O.K. to publish information like that, some crazy people take it as a recipe to act.”

Ms. Grinblat, who serves as the editor in chief of a Russian-language newspaper called Our Texas, said the media coverage was unbalanced in both Russia and the United States, largely pro-Putin there, anti-Trump here. “The situation is going more and more similar to Russia,” she said.

Leopold Kazadi has friends in Congo who went to prison for simply singing a protest song against President Joseph Kabila. Now he watches comedians take jabs at the American president with a patriotic reverence.CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times

Leopold Kazadi, 39, a community college student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, also spoke of the media portrayals of Mr. Trump. He said he watched late-night comics poke fun at the president with a kind of deep patriotism. He said he had friends in Congo who went to prison for demonstrating against President Joseph Kabila.

“Here I see a lot of comedians make a joke about the president,” said Mr. Kazadi, whose relatives still live in Congo. “People can speak out. In Congo, I can say it’s like ‘esclave.’ I say ‘esclave’ in French. People are like slaves.” He added, “My mom tells me all the time, ‘I’m so glad you’re over there.’”


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