Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
--Emma Lazarus (The Statue of Liberty)
As a father, I was deeply moved by the images of Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old boy who washed ashore after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea during his family's failed attempt to escape the Syrian civil war. Aylan's mother and four-year old brother also drowned on their journey in search of safety, security, and the dreams of a better life. The faces of the men, women, and children I see on the nightly news, arriving on the shores of Greece and Turkey in rubber boats, or walking along the railroad tracks of Hungary, are heartbreaking. “All over Europe and the Mediterranean world, barriers are being breached,” write the editors of The Nation. “[T]he natural and man-made barriers of fear and grief that keep people from fleeing war or poverty until they have no choice; the barriers of indifference that enable the rest of us to get on with our lives as if those men, women, and children were no concern of ours.”
As a nation, as individuals, as empathetic human beings, we cannot simply sit and do nothing. History has taught us otherwise.
In July 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt convened a conference at Evian, France, in the hope of convincing our allies and friends in the international community to accept large numbers of Jewish émigrés desperately seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany. In cooperation with Rabbi Stephen Wise, his friend and close confidant, Roosevelt had advanced an ambitious proposal to ease the plight of refugees by spreading the burden to friendly nations across the globe. Although delegates from 32 countries attended, the conference was a huge disappointment. Only the Dominican Republic offered to admit significant numbers of refugees. With a deep global recession lingering, convincing Americans and the world to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreigners was a hard sell.
At Evian, Roosevelt discovered that the resistance of world leaders to assuming responsibility for resettling refugees resembled the opposition he faced on the home front. Back in the United States, Roosevelt contended with stringent immigration quotas, an isolationist Congress, the anti-immigrant sentiments of organized labor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and a nation weary of engagement with the world. Many of our friends and allies were equally ungenerous. As described by American University Professors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman in FDR and the Jews (Harvard University Press, 2013):
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama stated that they wanted no traders or intellectuals, code words for Jews. Argentina said it had already accommodated enough immigrants from Central Europe. Canada cited its unemployment problem. Australia said that it had no “racial problems” and did not want to create any by bringing in Jewish refugees. Imperial countries such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands said that their tropical territories offered only limited prospects for European refugees. League of Nations High Commissioner Sir Neill Malcom was openly hostile to the idea of a new refugee organization. . . . The Washington Post headlined one story on the conference, “YES, BUT ---” [and] noted . . . “that delegates take the floor to say, ‘We feel sorry for the refugees and potential refugees, but---.’”
Many asked why other countries should absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees when the United States and Britain failed to do so. It was a question without a good answer.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and following the Kristallnacht pogroms in November of that year, the nations of Western Europe and the Americas feared an influx of refugees. By the summer of 1939, 309,000 Jewish refugees had applied for visas in the United States, but existing immigration quotas allowed for only 27,000 (1939 was the first year the United States attempted even to fill the quota for German and Austrian Jews). Some Jews found refuge in Great Britain and Palestine, though Britain actively blocked much Jewish emigration to Palestine. Still others fled to Central and South America. In the end, six million Jews perished in the Holocaust along with millions of other dissidents and “undesirables.” Although Nazi fascism was eventually defeated, when given the opportunity, the international community failed to act with the compassion and urgency needed to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Four million migrants and refugees have so far fled the bombs of Assad and the brutality of ISIS. The countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are overwhelmed with migrants, with Jordan and Lebanon having absorbed numbers approaching 20% - 25% of their respective populations. Despite the efforts of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international aid organizations, there is a tremendous shortage of food, water, shelter, and medical care. The conditions of the refugee camps in these bordering countries are unsustainable. Something must be done.
President Obama announced that the United States, which to date has admitted only 1,500 Syrian refugees (out of 4 million), will admit 10,000 more, though with no easing of administrative and bureaucratic restrictions that typically require two years of paperwork before a family can be admitted. This is pathetic. I tip my hat to the people of Germany, Sweden, and Iceland, where extraordinary efforts are underway to ease the plight of refugees, to offer shelter and a welcome mat to people in need, and to reconcile differing cultures and religions in ways that offer hope and optimism for the future.
Leadership requires the ability to appeal to the best in people, to inspire individuals, churches, and institutions to act for the broader good. “We need to decide right now what kind of Europe we are going to be,” said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. “My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn’t build walls.” Sweden’s employment minister, Ylva Johansson added, “To feel empathy with the suffering of another person, a person who is not like ourselves, is part of being human.”
We can debate forever whether American foreign policy in Syria and the Middle East is partly to blame for the current crisis, whether we should have intervened militarily against Bashar al-Assad, or provided more support to the rebel movements, or sent ground troops to fight ISIS – none of which, in my opinion, would have been feasible or productive. There are few good military options in Syria. However one resolves those issues, it is the responsibility of this country and the nations of Europe – and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others – to welcome and shelter people whose only crime is seeking safety and security for their families. The refugees need medicine, blankets, and food; they also need human warmth and compassion, people who will listen to them and grant them dignity and respect.
The people of Iceland who volunteered to pay for the flights of Syrian refugees and provided temporary shelter in their homes have set the high water mark for this crisis. Thousands have responded to the slogan, “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” It is encouraging to find idealism alive and well in one small corner of the world.
Germany and Sweden are also showing the world what it means to take seriously the obligations of privilege and wealth. Germany will accept 800,000 migrants this year alone, an astonishing figure that should set a moral example for the rest of us. The German people who have welcomed Syrians with flowers and food and hospitality can teach all of us what it means to respond to a humanitarian crisis. Sweden’s efforts, though smaller in total numbers, are even more impressive in light of the proportional burden that small country has accepted.
Assimilating refugees is difficult and complex. It can strain a nation’s economy and requires the acceptance and absorption of people with different cultural and religious practices, languages and values. It is true that we cannot save everyone and we cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But we can and should do more, much more, to stem the tide of human suffering and despair. As the most powerful and prosperous country on earth, we should follow the lead of the Germans, Swedes, and Icelanders in welcoming the stranger and offering hope and shelter to the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I know we live in cynical times. I can think of a hundred excuses for why we cannot or will not open our borders to Syrian families in need of a helping hand. We don’t know these people, it will cost too much, and it will be too difficult; where will they stay, and work, and go to school? Practical concerns always obstruct the feasibility of compassionate idealism. But “without idealists there would be no optimism,” American author Alisa Steinberg has written, “and without optimism there would be no courage to achieve advances that so-called realists would have you believe could never come to fruition.”
The humanitarian crisis that is Syria today is a stark reminder of the world’s failure to come to the aid of Jewish refugees during the Second World War. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, once a refugee herself, suggested that the political refugee, more than any other human being, exposes a society’s actual devotion to human rights; the wandering refugee has no legal status, no home, no state, nothing "except that they [are] still human." In the 1930’s and 1940’s, when confronted with millions of potential refugees, Europe and America offered insufficient refuge. We say never again, but do we mean it?