Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Beware of 'helpers'

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Whenever something bad happens, I, like probably many of you, remember Fred Rogers' quote about what his mother told him about the helpers:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

This weekend, I encountered a new type of "helper." After Donald Trump's disaster of an executive order that resulted in green card and visa holders being detained and already approved refugees being denied entry into the United States, I posted on social media about the harmful effects. Next thing I know, I'm in a debate with a former high school classmate about immigration and refugees. He accused my church pastor of spreading lies and expressed support of Trump's actions. I encouraged him to check out Canopy NWA, a local nonprofit that helps refugees settle into communities in Northwest Arkansas, to learn more on the extensive vetting process.

After a few minutes, he responded that he had shared information on Canopy with some "watchdog agencies looking for any place that might be willing to hide illegal immigrants." He went on to say he did this so that the unnamed watchdog groups could "help" the immigrants go through the process to become legal. What a crock. Unless he is woefully ignorant of the ways of the world, he was not acting with a helping heart. Rather, I suppose he imagined helping set up a raid on undocumented people hidden somewhere in a back room or attic.

In reality, this nonprofit is registered with Arkansas's secretary of state. Local business owners, clergy and U.S. military veterans serve on its board. The group is in regular contact with 3rd District Congressman Steve Womack and Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman. It is not a shadow group at all. But if it had been an organization that harbored undocumented individuals in back rooms and in attics as Miep and Jan Gies hid Anne Frank and her family, this "helper" would have put real lives at risk. Lives of men and women and children and teenagers who face real dangers back in places like El Salvador and parts of Mexico and other countries around the world where cartels and religious extremists rule.

What is most frightening is my former classmate is not your stereotypical anti-immigration poster boy. He isn't, like another schoolmate did, posting photos of himself with a flag emblazoned with the words "White Power Klu Klux Klan." No, he is a churchgoer and owns his own business. He attended college. He seems to be rather affluent and travels often. He is a nice guy. This is not the down-on-his-luck, out-of-work, angry, blue-collar Trump supporter the news loves to profile. He is the guy next door, a family man and a prime example of how extreme viewpoints have been normalized over the past year.

As many have pointed out on social media, if you ever wondered how you would have responded when the Nazis came to power, look at how you are responding now. These refugees and immigrants are not being sent to concentration camps, but many of the women and girls face rape and forced marriages. The men face violence and conscription into the cartels. And if they are LGBT, many of them face death.

Some believe that those of us who marched last weekend for refugees and immigrants are overreacting and being hysterical. If that has crossed your mind or is your opinion, sit down and talk with a refugee. Sit down and talk with an immigrant. Hear what they faced before leaving their homeland to come to the United States. Hear what their children faced if they did not come here. Now imagine what you would do if you faced those same horrific circumstances. For those of you who are already friends with refugees and immigrants, both documented and undocumented, guard them and keep them safe, but, please, as it continues to get scarier and scarier out there, watch out for some of the "helpers."

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