Thursday, June 24, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

‘I am Iowa’?


“ ‘Gov. Robert Ray was a phenomenal governor and a true statesman,’ said [Gov. Terry] Branstad.” – Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, Sept. 26, 2012.

“In his speech, [Gov. Terry] Branstad said, ‘Throughout his career, Ambassador Quinn has displayed leadership in protecting the world’s most vulnerable, working for causes to ensure we can continue to feed the world, and fighting for freedom for refugees and helping welcome them to our state.’ ” – Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, May 30, 2014.joes-1

“Today, Gov. Terry Branstad ordered all state agencies to halt any work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately in order to ensure the security and safety of Iowans.” – Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, Nov. 16, 2015.

The Anne Frank House sits quietly on the last interior ring of canals in Amsterdam. Prinsengracht. The Prince of Orange’s canal. A safe place you would think. Three canals further away from the moat that originally protected the city from invaders. This is where the middle and upper class built their homes as they waited for the next ship to come in from the Dutch East Indies. A good place to be. A fine neighborhood. Good schools. Free of crime. Clean and wholesome.

I sit on the canal bench and sip my cappuccino.

Prep Iowa - Pride Month

The crowd ebbs and flows. The canal boats dock, load up, and move on down the water. Bicyclists impatiently ring their bells as pedestrians meander into the bike path. Cars slowly try to navigate their way home. Not a lot different from Amsterdam in 1943, I imagine, except for that young girl and her family hidden behind me in the Annex.

“Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department practiced stricter immigration policies out of fear that (Jewish) refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 1993, Ayla Heder didn’t exist. Her parents met in a refugee camp after fleeing the war in Bosnia. No English, no money, no nothing, they came to Des Moines, Iowa. Young and alone.

Why Des Moines? Governor Robert Ray had a vision. A grand vision. In the 1970s he set up a State bureau to help assist refugees coming out of the Vietnam War. He committed to settling 1200 Tai Dam fleeing from Laos after the fall of Saigon. And Iowa took them in with open arms — with a little goading from Gov. Ray. Several years later, Gov. Ray came knocking at our conscience again. 1500 Cambodians fleeing Pol Pot’s massacre needed a home. Iowa took them in. Then, in the 1980s, refugees from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary came. Again, Iowa didn’t blink. And then, in 1993, came Ayla Heder’s parents. Two of the early group of Bosnians to arrive. They were fleeing the Serbian Orthodox Christians in the Bosnian war. And Iowa took them in.

And Ayla Heder’s parents worked. They cleaned rooms, they waited tables, they learned English, they bought cars, they paid taxes, they built homes, they had children — and they thrived. The American dream. Played and replayed by them, by us, and by our ancestors.

Now graduated from Iowa State University, and enrolled in a Master’s program for Public Health at Des Moines University, Ayla Heder is taking a break from her summer internship in Sarajevo for a weekend in Amsterdam before returning to school.

I tag along.

Heder comes out of the Anne Frank House.

“It is surreal to actually go in the house and walk through and realize this is actually where they were at. And at the end of the tour, there are all these other people, like famous actors, reflecting on their visit to the Anne Frank House. And there was a woman, who was from the war in the former Yugoslavia, who said that knowing and reading about Anne Frank as a young girl helped her get through the war. In fact, she wrote a diary throughout the war and it helped her keep sane.”

We sit quietly. Heder stares off over the canal.

“I think it is so ironic that there is all this picking on groups and their religions today. This house is a reminder of what bigotry and hate is capable of doing.”

She takes a breath, thinking.

“I hate that ‘never again’ stuff. People who have experienced bad stuff since the Holocaust – that phrase ‘never again’ is kind of a kick to them. But it does happen again and again and again. Cambodia. Rwanda. It’s happening in Syria.”

Ayla Heder sighs.

There is an iconic sign in Amsterdam, a trademark used by the city, with 10-foot letters, that spells “I amsterdam.” Heder follows me up to the Museumplein where the sign is located, and, without hesitation, she climbs up the middle “m,” plops down at the top, and flashes a smile.joes2

I am Amsterdam. A simple slogan with a simple meaning — we are all Amsterdam.

Governor Ray’s legacy is a legacy of tolerance. But where does this tolerance come from? Are we born with it? Can we be taught it? Have we lost it?

Russell Shorto’s book, “Amsterdam,” argues that Dutch tolerance grew out of the need for everyone to take their turn on repairing and watching the dikes. If you’re intolerant, you might find yourself quickly under water.

And Iowa tolerance? Perhaps it comes out of our historical connection to survival on the land. Without the help of our neighbor, the harvest doesn’t happen, the crops don’t get planted, the isolation of farming life is not made tolerable. If you’re intolerant, you might find yourself alone in a field of thistles.

Gov. Ray reminded us of our better selves. Sometimes he had to drag us along, but drag us he did. He demanded that we recognize our tolerance. And we did.

So, “I am Iowa”? You tell me.


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at Weeg mug bw

One Comment

  1. Neal Spence says:

    We should appreciate these immigrants and their sponsors. I have enjoyed meeting many immigrants to Iowa! I never suffered by sharing this state with immigrants. I think we are all better off that many immigrants came to Iowa. Thanks Joe!

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