BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- After a gut-wrenching week of terror, my award for bravery in the face of adversity goes to Ruslan Tsarni.
The uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who are suspected of having carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, stepped into the spotlight and showed uncommon humility and fortitude.
Tsarni did not back away from evidence of his two young relatives turning against their adopted country to do the unthinkable -- he owned up to it and said what needed to be said.
Over the course of several interviews, he freely admitted that he’d cut ties with the two boys years ago because he thought they were on the wrong path.
With a refreshing lack of sugarcoating, Tsarni called his nephews “losers,” illustrating the pain that he and his family had to withstand in order to express their sorrow for being even tangentially associated with such horrific events.
“I just wish they never existed, I’m wordless. ... The people who did this ... they do not deserve to exist on this earth,” Tsarni told one reporter. “Since these people do have association with me through blood ... these barbarians ... what can I say? ... Sympathy, condolences with [the victims] and if some one of them may just have sent a curse on me, I’m ready to accept it. ... What else can I say?”
Yet Tsarni did have the presence of mind to say several other very important things that spoke far beyond the shame at being associated with this violence. The grieving uncle addressed the domino-effect prejudice that so many others will suffer as a result of two young men’s mistakes.
Making a very clear distinction between the overwhelming majority of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who find a haven in this country after fleeing torture, repression and other nightmares, Tsarni spoke to the misguided fears of those who would make this terrible event about immigrants, immigration or Islam.
Tsarni speculated that his nephews acted out of “hatred for those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.”
And he addressed the singular fear that every olive-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired backpack-toting person felt when the Internet was engaged in the crowd-sourcing of potential suspects: “I hope it’s not one of us.”
My Hispanic friends thought it, my Muslim friends thought it, my Middle Eastern friends thought it. We were all holding our breath, hoping that America’s next super villain wouldn’t be one of us. And when it turned out that the suspects were Chechens, a very small segment of our diverse American population, we sighed relief tinged with empathy.
“He put a shame on our family, [the] Tsarni family,” said the uncle. “He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity. Because everyone now, they play with the word, Chechen, so they put that shame on the entire ethnicity.”
This takes guts to acknowledge. So few Americans were even vaguely familiar with the Chechen people that the Czech ambassador had to put out an official statement asking people to not confuse Chechnya with the Czech Republic. And now Chechen stands a chance of forever meaning “terrorist,” even to those who don’t make a habit of judging countries by their most infamous representatives.
Hispanics, like Muslims, know exactly what Tsarni meant and how every Chechen in America is feeling right now. One can easily imagine them thinking, “Great. Now everyone is going to hate me because I’m Chechen.”
Well, not everyone. But some people will use any excuse to vilify those who are unlike them and welcome any situation in which their narrowest fears seem to be reinforced. How many politicians, talking heads and plain old bigots have already jumped on these bombings to cast doubts on legal immigrants, Muslims and refugees? Too many to count.
If they were smart, they’d forget trying to make examples of two young men who went astray and instead realize that the uncle is far more typical of people who come here from abroad and work hard to become one of us.
They talk straight, own up to their embarrassments and, like Ruslan Tsarni, tell their youngsters what so many other immigrants have told their descendants: “Just do your business. Work, go to school, be useful, know why you came to America.”
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group