THE DRY CLEANERS — “No starch on the shirts,” I say to the clerk. She smiles and says, “No scratch from de sheets.” I shake my head. “No, no starch on the shirts.” She nods. I have no idea what will happen to my shirts, although my sheets may come back on hangers and button-downed. This is because I don’t speak Vietnamese. I also have a failure to communicate with Tex-Mex and Chinese waiters, Uber drivers from Algeria and talking on the phone to “LeRoy” in Pakistan who’s trying to fix my computer. Now I must prepare to speak Kurdish. As you know, President Trump is pulling out most U.S. troops from the Kurdish-Turkish border, allowing the Turks to invade the Kurds’ territory. Trump is abandoning them despite the fact that the Kurds have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS. And we promised those allies we would stand by them “as long as the rivers flow and the desert bloom in the spring.” (Translated from the Kiowa, Comanche and Cleveland Indians.) Of course, today the rivers flow with coal sludge and the desert is blooming with fracking, but it’s the promise that counts.
We know what happens next: Kurds who face torture and death, because they fought alongside the Americans, will come here – along with their immediate families and their cousins, in-laws, next-door neighbors, the guys who translated, drove for us or have a good immigration lawyer. (Texas has more refugees than any other state, and most of them come to Houston.) Then they go through the usual red tape for asylum seekers, giving us the quote, thanks to Miss Muffet: “Kurds and wait.” Earlier were the Haitians from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. After the devastating 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, the U.S. added Haitians to the Temporary Protected Status designation that allowed them to stay in the U.S. for up to three years. They are still here, although the Trump administration is trying to move them home, with much protestation.
It all began with the Battle of Culloden of 1746, when the English beat the Scots and the losers came to America. Then the French-Canadians came after the British beat the French – who hasn’t? Today we call them Cajuns. Through the years immigrants left their teeming shores following defeats. German wars and the military draft sent millions of German refugees to the U.S. in the 1840s and 50s. Today, Texas is loaded with their descendants. Texas got lots of Czechs, too, as the Hapsburgs kept going to war. In the 1840s the Irish Potato Famine sent the peasants here. After our own Civil War, thousands of defeated Southerners followed the GTT rule – Gone To Texas. The Yankee invasion began about 1970.
If God hands you a lemon, make a margarita out of it. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 sent numbers of Mexicans to Texas. Both preceding and following World War II we received lots of refugees. Following the rise of Castro, hundreds of thousands of anti-Castro Cubans came to the U.S. and are now a major political force in Florida. And when the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 collapsed, we received many Magyars (that’s “Hungarian” in Hungarian). Behind them were the Serbs and Croatians who stopped fighting each other so they could move here and fight each other. Newcomers joined us in 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The South Vietnamese, defeated by the North Vietnamese, arrived. In more recent times, Texas has hosted refugees from Katrina, perhaps a quarter of a million. One estimate found that 40,000 stayed in Texas, giving us a lot of good half-backs and chefs. We still don’t know how to handle the hundreds of thousands of Central American peasants seeking asylum. Maybe we should be named “America — land of losers.” But we did say give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for a pizza franchise.
As for the Kurds, we need to bone up on them because they may be your next valet parker. “Don’t scratch my Maserati Quattroporte” doesn’t translate. They are an ethnic and language group living in countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran and – currently – anywhere around the region that’s not exploding. Like the French-Canadians, Gypsies, Palestinians and Texas Democrats, Kurds don’t have their own country, but for decades they have been trying to establish Kurdistan. This no-country problem means no one knows how many Kurds there are, but estimates run between 25 and 30 million, minus the 14,000 Kurds who were killed fighting ISIS, (which means there were 14,000 American military who weren’t killed). Over the years, the Kurds’ reputation for military courage and fighting ability has made them in high demand as mercenaries in many armies, but in this case they are fighting for their freedom.
No one else speaks Kurdish but the Kurds, and in Houston they will fit right in. Houstonians speak at least 145 languages at home, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census data. More than a third of Houston residents who are older than 5 speak a language other than English at home. In Harris County, 2.2 million residents speak only English at home while 1.6 million people also speak another language. Of those, 1.3 million residents speak Spanish. We have thousands who speak Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian languages. More than 15,500 people speak French at home and 8,915 speak German. Just 2,202 Houstonians speak Italian. More than 19,700 speak a variety of African languages at home, but only 445 people speak Afrikaans. Slightly more people, 460, speak Danish. Just 60 people speak Slovak. The Welsh must feel lonely. Only 25 among us speak Welsh.
So get ready for the next wave of foreign newcomers, and more ethnic restaurants. You want your sheep with or without fleece? Or try our take-out mutton, Ewe-Haul-It. We have Sniper’s Surprise washed down with a Molotov cocktail. But don’t order the Trump’s Rump Roast Revenge. Oh, and check your sheets for buttons.
Ashby migrates at ashby2@comcast