I HELPED JUDGE a public-speaking contest the other day. It was at the Odd Fellows hall on Douglas Street, in this ornately decorated, high-ceiling-ed chamber straight out of Harry Potter. One of those rooms where you expect the eyes in the portraits to follow you around.
The speakers were all 16 and 17, vying for a trip to the United Nations in New York. They were uniformly bright, eager and engaging, which clashed unnecessarily with the way I like to think of young people. (At their age, I was vying for a trip to the vice-principal’s office.)
The first student to speak offered a stirring defence of the UN, of the need for fact and reason to trump (as it were) populist euphoria. This kid was smart. He used the language like a scalpel. He was self-confident. He was persuasive. He was … Mexican.
Somewhere in Washington, an inexplicable shiver ran down Donald Trump’s spine.
Hmm, I wondered, will this kid have trouble at the U.S. border if he wins?
Next up was a girl whose speech made a compelling case for international co-operation. Her delivery was flawless. She was eloquent. She was poised. She also had an accent from one of those countries that Trump blames for taking U.S. manufacturing jobs. (OK, it turns out most of those jobs were lost to automation, not foreign competition, but let’s not quibble.)
At this point it occurred that the president wouldn’t like this contest very much. Not that it would happen in Victoria, I thought, but all we need now to complete the Trumpian Trifecta is for the next speaker to be a Musli…
“I remember my childhood in Tehran,” began Shaida Rabie.
“SWEET MERCY, SHE’S AN IRANIAN!” I shrieked, and dived under the desk.
“What are you doing?” asked CTV’s Astrid Braunschmidt, my fellow judge.
“I saw Argo,” I replied. “We’re going to be hostages!”
Astrid rolled her eyes, but she’s a meteorologist, not a terrorism expert. “You’re flake news,” I told her. “If Donald Trump thinks this 16-year-old girl is a threat to the most powerful nation on Earth, then who am I to disagree?”
OK, enough of the jokes, because while this story might be ridiculous, it’s not funny.
The night really did unfold like that (other than the desk-diving bit) with those three teens having links to places that have been singled out as threats to the United States. Mexicans? Bad hombres. Asia? Stealing jobs. Iran? One of the six countries said to be red-flagged in Trump Travel Ban 2.0, due any day.
Shaida Rabie won’t be caught in that ban directly. The Claremont Secondary student might have spent a couple of early years in Iran, but she was born in Victoria, where her parents moved after meeting in California. Her dad was from Tehran, her mother — of Ukrainian heritage — from Regina.
The travel restrictions still affect Shaida’s life, though. She and her dad had wanted to go to California or Hawaii for spring break, but uncertainty around the ban has put his ability to go there in question. Likewise, Shaida’s Iranian-born relatives in California are reluctant to visit Victoria; with their American visas suspended, they would be stranded here. “They can’t leave the U.S. if they want to go back,” she says.
The most significant impact on Shaida: For the first time in her life, she has been made to feel apart.
This is new. She might have spent that time in Tehran (“Farsi was my first language, though I’ve totally forgotten it”), but in reality she’s just another Canadian girl. She plays guitar, studies dance, aspires to an acting career in film and television, regular stuff. “I didn’t think I was different at all.”
Then came Trump and the message that it’s OK to treat certain people with suspicion.
“It’s hard to take it seriously,” Shaida says. At the same time, she knows the signals from the White House have emboldened xenophobes in the U.S. “I can’t imagine being in the States right now and being targeted by so many people who don’t even know you.” Her mother has advised her not to mention Iran when travelling, and to use only her Canadian passport.
Shaida herself seems more concerned that all this is diverting attention from the real problems. “I think he’s distracting the world from other things that are going on,” she says. We used to see a lot about Syria. “Now it’s off the grid again. It’s pretty much all Donald Trump right now.”
Good thing there are still young people willing to speak up about what’s important.
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