I remember that feeling of regret that would boil up inside me whenever I read the history of an oppressed people. Those families whose houses were destroyed on top of their heads or in front of their eyes. That enslaved child whose first taste of slavery was the sight of the slave owner mercilessly whipping the bare back of his enslaved aunt. The farmer whose crops were intentionally burned. The children separated from their families to be given new identities and new parents. The abused women. The beheaded men. As I read these stories, I couldn’t shake off the heavy pain in my chest that threatened to take form as tears, or relieve the lump in my throat that ached to become screams. I wish I could grab the hands of Time and plead with Her to take me into Her past, so I may change the course of Her future. But alas, I cannot turn back time just as I cannot bring back those who now rest under the earth. But then again why would I, for who would want to return to a world that did not honour the value God had given them?
That feeling of regret haunts me, but not to scare me. It is preserved by my conscience and its memory is released when it is time to give me life. I have learned a crucial lesson: regret about the past is cheap, if it does not remind you in the present that it can come knocking on your door in the future. In other words, your regret about the past means nothing, if it doesn’t move you to act in the present. History does not exist to entertain us with Her stories. Her purpose is to teach, but She has not done her job properly. Or perhaps we have not been good students. So, like any teacher, History is bound to repeat Herself, so that maybe we would finally understand the lesson.
Over the past few months, migrant families have been ripped apart in the USA by the government’s “zero tolerance” policy, which was implemented in April. Latin American migrants fleeing violence in their home countries (e.g., Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador) come to the US seeking refuge at the US-Mexico border. However, anyone crossing the border illegally is detained by US Border Patrol agents and sent to a detention facility. According to the Flores Settlement, children cannot be held in detention centers, even with their parents. Under the Obama administration, families were kept together in detention facilities, but after a judge ruled that this violated Flores, the government began to release families or release them at faster rates. However, with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, all adults entering illegally must be detained and criminally prosecuted, even if that means separating their children from them.
And separated they were. 2342 children have been taken from their parents and sent to separate holding facilities. Parents were not told where their children were going and when they would see them again. Reports of the traumatic conditions of the families sparked international outcry and condemnation, and protests erupted around the US calling for the policy’s reversal. This pressure forced President Trump to sign an executive order on June 20 to keep families together while adults await prosecution.
The physical, mental, and emotional damage done to separated families is unquantifiable. Stories, images, and videos released over the past several weeks have shed light on the conditions of these families and the trauma they suffered during and after separation. Pediatricians who visited holding cells speak of children uncontrollably crying for their parents. A father committed suicide after being separated from his wife and infant son. A two-year-old girl became a symbol of migrant child suffering after being photographed crying while her mom was searched by a Patrol agent. A mother was deported back to Guatemala while her child remains in the USA. Photojournalists have found it hard to do their jobs as they witness parents go one way and children forced to go another.
Perhaps the most jarring has been the audio recording of children in a detention facility. These children can be heard sobbing uncontrollably, calling out “papá!” and “mami!”. A little girl begs the Patrol agent for her aunt, whose number she has memorized, while another child cries nonstop for her father. Listen to that recording. Force yourself to do it – perhaps it’ll soften your heart in a world that has turned hearts harder than rock.
They say the story of Hussain and Zainab has lessons for everyone. The tragedy of their story is that it also models the experiences of so many oppressed people. This separation of children from parents seeking refuge is no different. Was the young Fatima Al’Alila not forcibly separated from her father as he was forced to leave his home and meet his tragic fate, with not even her infant brother left to console her? Did Sukayna not call for her father and uncle, only to receive the crackling of the fire of her tents as a reply? How many nights did four-year-old Ruqaya cry for her father before she died in her jail cell? To whom did the fearful orphans run but to Aunt Zainab, their last remaining source of comfort? Let us not forget the tears our Prophet and Imam Ali shed for the world’s orphans nor God’s command to care for them.
Perhaps we do not see these migrant children as orphans because they do not fit our traditional definition of an orphan: a child with a deceased parent. But is the tragedy of orphans the death of their parent, or the separation from them? The baby does not cry for her mother because she understands the reality of death; her tears flow because she no longer feels the warmth of her mother’s touch nor hears the safety of her father’s voice. For those migrant children who have been separated from their parents, it matters not whether their parents are dead or alive. In that moment, what matters is that they are no longer there to protect and comfort them in a strange and hostile place.
The story of Imam Hussain and his family is imprinted in our hearts. It is a piece of history that is alive in the present and moves us to counter oppression whenever and wherever we see it. We cannot say “يا ليتنا كنا معكم” and regret not being there to help Imam Hussain and his family if we do not take a stand here and now, in whatever way we know how. Our actions in the present are evidence of the sincerity of our regret. And we must never forget about the Hussain of our time, to whom we must present this evidence.