These Riots Mean Something Different for Refugees

June 2, 2020
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 2: Merchandise lies scattered in a looted souvenir and electronics shop near Times Square after a night of protests and vandalism over the death of George Floyd early June 2, 2020 in New York City. Thousands of protesters took to the streets throughout the city to express their anger after Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Floyd’s death, the most recent in a series of deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police, has set off days and nights of protests across the country. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As an observant Jew, I turned off all electronics from the evening of May 28 to the evening of May 30 for Shavuot and Shabbat. When my husband and I took our 4- and 2-year-old boys out for a walk at dusk, police helicopters chopped through the skies and two Hatzolah vehicles drove by with an ominous warning via megaphones: “Go home. Lock your doors.”

It wasn’t long before I understood what was happening. In fact, it was transpiring less than half a mile away on La Cienega Boulevard during an alleged armed attack by looters at a Panda Express and a pawn shop. Siren blares interplayed with the unsettling sound of helicopters, followed by what sounded like small explosions. Even though I’m a mother in my 30s, in that moment, I just wanted my parents.

I wanted to be near them because the last time there were looters and structure fires near my home during the 1992 L.A. riots, I was 9, and my family had recently arrived as refugees. My parents couldn’t help me process the violence, sirens and flames. There was only fear. But the one thing they could offer was physical protection and that was enough. I still remember how, in true Persian style, my father held vigil behind our front door, armed only with long, steel kabob skewers (in his defense, they were very pointy).

Twenty-eight years later, as I hugged our oldest son in his bed, I realized I had become my parents. I had to keep this child safe, physically and emotionally. I also realized everything I process about civil unrest, whether it’s related to my experiences in Iran, or in 1992, or today, is filtered through a prism of my experiences as a refugee — and a lot of fear. And something tells me in this city of immigrants, I’m not alone.

In 1992, hundreds of Iranian refugees had set up shop in downtown L.A., selling products ranging from trimming to leather car seat covers. They were joined by Korean shop owners who, too, were forced to start again in the United States, but it was a small price to pay to be in America.

 As I hugged our oldest son in his bed, I realized I had become my parents.

I’ll never forget the television images of some of those Korean business owners who’d formed armed militias, standing on the roofs of their stores, armed with AK-47s to thwart the looters. The sight was surreal. I can’t, however, confirm whether the Persian shopkeepers stood with kabob skewers.

Many of these immigrants saw in the police officers, security and protection, contrary to what many members of the black community associated with law enforcement, while others expressed feeling abandoned by police and left alone to protect their stores.

Whether in 1992 or the past two weeks, a lot of immigrant shopkeepers, including Persians, devastated by the loss of their livelihood and the physical trauma of walking past shattered windows and empty shelves, may well have wondered: Why me? What did I have to do with any of this?

In 1992, looters burned a Korean-owned pharmacy in a small shopping center on the corner of Pico and La Cienega boulevards, and I wasn’t able to find answers as to why a place that helped people had been targeted, and what the owner had done to deserve it. On May 31, my phone alerted me to an attempted break-in at the T-Mobile store in the same shopping complex.

A lot has changed in the past few decades. I now know what the 1992 riots would have been like had smartphones and social media existed. And yet, some things remain unchanged. Black Americans still face injustice. As I mourn for members of the black community in the face of such unforgivable injustice against people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I also mourn for the shopkeepers across the nation whose businesses were destroyed — in the middle of a pandemic, no less — by looters.

I’m still a little child who can’t shake her fear.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist. 

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