"Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down." —Socrates
Recently, President Donald Trump visited California's southern border with Mexico to pick out his preferred prototype for the "big, beautiful wall" touted throughout his presidential campaign. The news stories and photos portrayed a president picking out samples of huge cement and steel barriers as if selecting pieces of furniture for a new mansion. Clearly, he had a few favorites in his quest to determine the most wall-worthy — a preference for "see-through" walls to detect would-be pole vaulters or "mountain climbers" desperate to scale the mammoth barriers for entry to the U.S. from Mexico.
While we can debate the merits of a border wall and whether it justifies an estimated $25 billion-plus investment, building walls in the modern age may be counterproductive. The proposed border wall with Mexico has not gone unnoticed by the joyous and hardworking Mexican people, either. On a recent visit to a small coastal village in Mexico, I was playfully goaded into buying a hat from a clever shop owner who stated, "Please, we need money to build the wall!"
Historically, walls have been built to keep certain people out — the unfamiliar, the different. Walls are symbols of safety, ownership and marginalization. Some classify as world wonders, such as the Great Wall of China. Others hold people captive, as they do in prisons and in occupied territories in the Middle East. Walls have also been constructed to keep human assets from fleeing to new areas for political or economic reasons. Such was the case with the inception of the Berlin Wall, intended to prevent a "brain drain" of young and well-educated citizens of East Germany, a fear that proved justified. In fact, by 1960, the combination of World War II and the massive emigration westward left East Germany with only a portion of its skilled professionals, including engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers and lawyers.
Building the Berlin Wall to keep in a skilled workforce may have temporarily retained talent, but it also ignited resentment internally and externally. As noted at history.com, "What the world saw as the Berlin Wall was actually two concrete barriers with a 160-yard 'death strip' in between watchtowers, trenches, and runs for guard dogs, flood lights and trip-wire machine guns."
Walls separate people. Walls begin as a cold, blank canvas for political graffiti. Walls and democratic ideals seem incongruous.
Last month, I had the pleasure of teaching a leadership class to six female visitors from the Palestinian territories, and they talked about walls. The training was part of a program sponsored by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, a program through the U.S. Department of State. It was my third experience working with UCCD, previously with women representing Asian and then Central and South American countries. I was very excited to spend time with Muslim women from Gaza and Palestine, as a few years ago I had visited Israel and parts of the Palestinian territories and came away with impressions cemented in my memory. Now, it was time to hear theirs.
The Gazan women told stories of the difficulty leaving their territory. The chasm and clash of cultures create palpable, omnipresent uncertainty. I had read about the "separation wall" surrounding Gaza, a constant reminder that many Gazans feel they are prisoners in their own neighborhoods. Disputes over land and the right to build continue to hinder any hint of true peace. Nevertheless, the Palestinian visitors were bright, hopeful and entrepreneurial. The physical walls surrounding them were not a blockade to their passion for women's equality and prosperity in their land.
Each woman owned a business or represented businesses. They brought me handmade gifts that they sell online. One gift was a small lined-paper notebook carefully covered by tightly woven burlap. On the cover was a beautiful painted picture of a dream catcher with the words "Let GAZA live." Another young woman generously offered a handcrafted purse made of the same fabric pattern commonly worn by their former leader Yasser Arafat. Understanding that Arafat had been reviled in Israel and some parts of the international community, I inquired about that choice of pattern and was told that among his own people he is considered the father of the Palestinian national movement. She was very proud of that.
In his speech in West Berlin in 1987, President Ronald Reagan told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!" I'd like to envision the U.S. as a country that cares enough to destroy walls rather than construct them. No doubt, countries need to establish and enforce reasonable immigration policies, but is building massive, expensive structures necessary to accomplish that?
Border walls come in different forms and are built for different purposes. But walls cannot separate the sameness of the human spirit.