Nearly a decade has passed since a Northland gardener became a poster child for intolerance, the center of a City Hall uproar that tarred Kansas City in the national news.
Frances Semler and I got to know each other back then. New to The Star’s editorial board, I was charged with inputting her opinion columns so they could be published. The mayor had appointed Semler to the plum position of parks board member.
All hell broke loose when it was discovered that she was also a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
The Minutemen then consisted of many fragmented groups. But the most cartoonish liked to dress up in military fatigues, carry loaded weapons and “patrol” the U.S.-Mexico border, on the hunt for immigrants.
Real U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were not amused. That was 2007.
Semler called the other day, as she periodically does, worried about immigration.
She was irked. Donald Trump’s vacuous anti-Muslim comments had ground into all that she’s learned about immigrants since first being thrust into the spotlight.
Trump hadn’t blinked when a man at a rally went on a facts-be-damned mini-rant about Muslims in America, insinuating that they needed to be removed en masse.
Since then, fellow presidential candidate Ben Carson has piled on with his own insipid commentary about Muslims.
These two lead the GOP field for the nomination.
“I know they can get a few votes that way,” Semler said. “But sometimes I just can’t believe people, what they are saying.”
A small recent poll out of North Carolina found that 40 percent of the respondents felt that Islam should be illegal in the U.S. And 20 percent weren’t sure.
Asininely ignorant is an appropriate phrase for that shakedown on the freedom of religion.
It’s a danger Semler wisely stepped away from, quitting the Minutemen not long after she’d joined.
“I had a change of heart years ago,” she said.
40 percentRespondents in a small North Carolina poll who feel Islam should be illegal in the U.S.
As a counter to the anti-Muslim sentiment of late, Semler wished to see her neighbor highlighted, a Somali woman who is Muslim. They live a few houses apart, on the same lane north of the river.
They are friends. Not a share-every-secret, plan-dinner-parties sort of bonding. But cordial, respectful, concerned for the other’s well-being friendly. We “chit-chat,” Semler said.
When Muhuto Jama and her husband first moved to the River Forest neighborhood several years ago, Semler compiled a short profile of her.
She included Jama’s photo in the neighborhood association newsletter. The intention was to counter any startled reactions to Jama’s veils, her long flowing robed dresses.
“She just has the most interesting stories,” Semler said. “They lived in a refugee camp, and those camps are just awful.”
An acquaintance of Semler’s, a lady from another area of the city, told her to be careful, warning, “She’s going to chop your head off someday.” Semler let the insinuation of terrorism pass, blankly commenting, “Yeah, well right now I think she’s a neat neighbor.”
A few years ago, Semler started what she calls her “solutions” folder. Into it she tucks information that she researches about U.S. immigration, the long waits for visas, border security, congressional unwillingness to pass workable reforms. She puts most of the blame on Congress.
She thinks that President Barack Obama promoted a good plan, focused on deporting people who have criminal records, but letting others — who are the vast majority — stay.
“There are different solutions other than just throwing everybody out,” she said.
For one thing, undifferentiated talk and broad brushstrokes envelop immigrants like her neighbor.
“You just have to listen a little harder than normal,” Semler said of Jama’s English.
How refreshing. A U.S.-born person taking it upon herself to offer patience. It’s a far cry from those screaming about needing to press 1 for English.
Jama runs a shop, selling mostly clothing and bedding, near Sixth Street and Prospect Avenue.
There she fills the role of the immigrant who understands English far better than her customers.
She learned over her 22 years here, first through the resettlement language programs at Don Bosco, then through the help of a Kansas City church.
This week in her store, she helped a younger Somali woman who had been in a car wreck and was having trouble negotiating with the insurance company. Jama ensured that a rental car was offered.
There are different solutions other than just throwing everybody out.
Jama knows how difficult managing a life in the U.S. can be when daily life is upturned. Jama’s husband stepped out to warm her SUV one chilly March morning, left it running. It was stolen. Merriam police found it a month later.
It cost more than $2,000 to change the locks, get the stink out of it from alcohol, dirty luggage and maybe some kind of drug used inside. Jama also needed to replace paperwork that was taken from the car, including a copy of her U.S. citizenship.
The family added a surveillance camera to their property. And they believe the same criminal showed up again, bashing at the door with a shovel. There have been no arrests. Jama kept the shovel. It’s in the store, saved as evidence.
“Stupid guy,” she says of the man. “If he wants to work, you can work. This is a free country.” But don’t ask her about U.S. politics. She’s too busy, working six, seven days a week.
Which is exactly why people who take the time to learn — people like Semler — are necessary.
She admits being initially drawn down the wrong path by her concerns about illegal immigration. Maybe that’s why she gets incensed these days. Semler knows what it is like to be lured by tough talk.
“You join a group and then you find the crazies in there,” she said.
Semler didn’t undergo a forced conversion. She simply began to learn more.
She saw how much she didn’t know about the nation’s immigration laws and history and realized it affected what she absorbed.
If only our elected officials — especially those seeking the presidency — cared enough about America to do the same.