Patricia Okoumou: Immigrant Warrior
Editor’s note: Guest blogger James Abro is the author of six novels and three books including, most recently, Facing Homelessness. A lifelong social activist, Abro started Advocate for Economic Fairness! in order to give voice to those working for a fairer and more progressive economy. He also works locally in New York City with homeless outreach groups and nationally as an advocate for homeless rights and economic fairness. You can learn more about his work at about.me/james.abro
I was introduced to Patricia Okoumou at Middle College Church in Manhattan on July 7. I am a member of the church’s social and economic justice committees. She was there with a film crew to screen a documentary they are working on about Okoumou and her work.
Ms. Okoumou is famously known as the woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, protesting the Trump Administration’s immigration policy and inhumane detention practices. Of course, she provoked the ire and scorn of Donald Trump and Fox News. He called her a “whack job” and Fox chided her for interrupting “Americans” who were trying to enjoy a patriotic holiday.
Please allow me to provide the words of poet Emma Lazarus etched into the base of the Statue where Ms. Okoumou was arrested: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp…/ Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shores/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
What impressed me most about Ms. Okoumou is that her activism on this issue comes directly from her experience in the Congo where she lived until 1994, when she legally immigrated to the United States. She grew up at a time when a civil war was taking place in her country. She recalls as a high school student seeing carts with dead bodies and body parts being dragged in the open from places where carnage was taking place. She decided to come to America because she had heard it described as a place “where people are free and can make their own opportunities.”
The reason I am emphasizing this part of Ms. Okoumou’s story is because in our present hyper-polarized political environment, immigration policy, as well as other issues like poverty and health care, get hijacked by ideologues. The people affected become secondary to winning rhetorical arguments.
I have experienced this personally. In discussions about the flood of refugees coming here from Central America, I have pointed out the historical fact that much of the political and economic instability there can be traced back to our fighting proxy wars with the Soviet Union in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras during the 1980s.
Even though I wrote a novel, Devils and Angels, based on someone I knew who went AWOL from military service in Central America, and I have been to those places to see for myself what was going on, my knowledge and experiences are dismissed as suspect by people who prefer to think that these crises just happen on their own.
This is where we’ve devolved to in our national political discourse. So how do we pull out of this quagmire?
By listening to Ms. Okoumou and others who have direct experience with the issues they advocate for. Ms. Okoumou has used her fame from the 2018 4th of July event to catalyze many individuals and groups to rise up and join her in returning American immigration policy back to its original intent, as expressed so well by Emma Lazarus.
You can contact Ms. Okoumou on her website as well as find out more about the organizing and activism work she is doing now: https://patriciaokoumou.com/contact-us.