It’s a chilly afternoon in lower Manhattan at the Xavier Mission on 15th Street. Every Sunday for the past 33 years, the Xavier Mission has been offering meal service to those in need — this busy community kitchen feeds the hungry by the hundreds each week.
It’s there on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that I met 3-year-old Rian and 6-year-old Declan — two children volunteering to clean and scrub this vast dining hall, along with adults and some refugees from the Middle East and south Asia.
It's there on 15th Street that I see Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, trying to give those kids — her kids — a lesson in what it’s like outside the Obama Administration’s power matrix.
"For an Irish immigrant to be living in the Waldorf Astoria is — I had trouble getting used to it. My kids did not,” Power says with a laugh. “I'm trying to bring them more into what's happening in the real world."
Today, Power is doing just that with the help of Andy Lippman from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. He’s handing out bottles of bluish glass cleaner, and the ambassador and her young kids get to work scrubbing.
“Look down here, see the dirt? We need you to wash that off. Can you go a little harder with your little hand?” Power asks Rian.
“I can do it,” Rian replies. “This is fun.I can see my reflection in it now." She giggles.
Among the volunteers are several refugees, including some young doctors. They were not comfortable giving us their last names because they have family still in war-torn Syria, but they feel very comfortable and welcome here in the United States.
“The United States will give me the opportunity to be a good man, a successful doctor, and I will continue to work hard until I achieve my dream,” says Rami, a Syrian refugee.
This doctor's dream is to succeed here in America, and to be reunited with his family far from a nation that would have forced him into the army to face ISIS and other insurgents. He just wants peace, he says, and he’s happy to explain that to anyone — even a Muslim banning billionaire.
“I'll invite Donald Trump to come to my house and visit me,” he says.
“You really are inviting Donald Trump to your house?” I ask. “Be careful what you wish for — he’ll come!”
“Yes, he can come and he will know that our life is funny — we live a normal life like all other people,” Rami says.
The humanitarian workers here at the Xavier Mission understand that obtaining a normal life is the goal of these refugees — not some bloody Islamist utopia. Power believes that, despite the rhetoric of campaign headlines, most Americans understand that too.
“All across the country, my sense is that there are communities stepping up in huge ways,” she says. “This has been going on for decades — that families across America are opening their doors, delivering their toys and their hand-me-down clothes and books to new families that are coming. The stipend that the US government gives [to refugees] is enough to get a family through some number of months, but fundamentally, it’s the communities that have stepped up that have made it possible for so many families over the years to get resettled.”
Though anti-refugee comments from the presidential campaign seems to dominate the airwaves, Power argues that it’s American families that are silently meeting this challenge.
“What’s visible is what people say in debates or soundbites,” she says. “I know in talking to some number of families who are newly resettled, they’re kind of stunned by the rhetoric and hurt by it. I think our job, in addition to actually reaching out and engaging refugees that are trying to resettle, is to also lift up the examples of communities who are opening their doors in order to offset some of the noise that is out there.”
That disconnect is something Ambassador Power has seen during her tenure at the United Nations.
“Public policy is about people, so what I feel a responsibility to do whenever I can is to engage with real individuals who are affected by real policies, and certainly also those affected by rhetoric as well,” she says. “It’s too easy to just be out there saying, ‘Refugees are welcome,’ or on the other side, ‘Refugees are not welcomed.’ One has to actually get to know these families and these people, and listen to them.”
When it comes to making a connection with refugees, Power thinks back to Pope Francis’ visit to Congress in September.
“He said, ‘See their faces,’” she says. “If they become just numbers then whether you’re inside the Situation Room or outside on some stump trying to whip up peoples’ fears, they’re just abstractions. What’s consistent, certainly in my career, no matter whether I was a journalist or a human rights advocate or now in government, you’ve just got to talk to people and hear how they’re doing and what they’re confronting. Then, if you can, do your part to try to make it a little bit easier for them.”
At the end of the day, Power says Syrian refugees have “been through enough,” adding that their plight should serve as a reminder of the desperate situation facing millions.
Though Power’s tenure will be over when Barack Obama leaves office, she’s not slowing down any time soon.
“We have a lot to do,” she says. “I think as you heard in the State of the Union, we are only going to get more ambitious as the clock ticks and we head towards January of 2017.”
Whether it’s in the halls of the United Nations or at this community kitchen, Power carries the weight of her mission with her.
“For every job that I’ve done in government, I’ve come in with a list of things to do, and I think Syria is something that stands out as being one of the most horrific situations in the world,” she says. “Being here and meeting people from Syria who have family members in Syria but are donating their time and service to give back to American communities, it’s just another reminder of our responsibility to them.”