Considering displaced persons: Before we fear, let’s learn from the past

| September 25, 2016

It’s February 1945. Liviu is fifteen years old, though he does not look it. The months in the camp have whittled him down to a child-like size, always shivering. Though he has been out for nearly two weeks—the foreign men loaded him and the other inmates into wagons and drove them to a new camp with separate beds and good-smelling clothes—he’s still trapped. Liviu can’t locate any other Romanian speakers, and there is no sign of the two men he had come to trust when he’d been forced to sort prisoners’ belongings at the camp entrance.

Seventy years later, Riham sits on top of a sleeping bag inside of a pup tent not a dozen miles away from the United Nations camp where Liviu lived for most of 1945 after liberation. She rifles through her backpack, noticing she is down to one diaper for her son, Akram. She strokes his warm back squirming with sleeplessness, knowing that if she could just track down some basic supplies—not just diapers, but also teething gel and a new pacifier—Akram might sleep soundly again. Riham is in decent physical condition, but the constant change and the feeling of not knowing are gnawing at her ability to reason—the thing she’d prided herself so heavily during her years at business school.

Our Dilemma

Addressing the UN General Assembly at this Tuesday’s Summit on Migrants and Refugees, President Obama echoed the sentiments of numerous world leaders, calling on nations to respond to people like Riham — modern-day refugees and migrants who have been robbed of their homes, belongings, social circles, and daily routines due to civil war and ensuing economic decline. Obama stated, “[T]his crisis is one of the most urgent tests of our time — our capacity for collective action. To test, first and foremost, our ability to end conflicts, because so many of the world’s refugees come from just three countries ravaged by war — Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.”

Still, many Americans are choosing not to take the President’s words to heart. Politicians and everyday citizens alike have voiced concern that migrants and refugees, specifically individuals from predominantly Muslim countries, may attempt to enter the United States in order to carry out acts of terrorism. As a result, the U.S. has resettled just 85,000 refugees within its borders this year, a number that pales in comparison to the UNHCR-estimated 65.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world, five million of whom are from the Middle East. A meager 10,000 of the refugees settled within the United States are from Syria—a country that has seen four million of its residents flee due to civil war.

It is important to note that millions of displaced persons from the Middle East and Africa are currently being hosted in nations close to their homelands; however, many of these are low- and middle-income countries that are not well equipped to address the needs of people like Riham and her son.

Our Choice

If we consider history, we notice that this is not a new trend for the United States. New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta wrote last weekend that although the United States has provided a safe haven for people seeking refuge in past crises (most notably after the Vietnam War and during the final years of the Soviet Union), its actions to aid individuals fleeing conflict in Central and South America over the past few decades have been less-than-impressive. Moreover, though Sengupta does not draw this connection, I notice an eerie resemblance to the United States’ initial response to the Holocaust.

According to an article issued by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Department of State upheld strict immigration policies both before and during the Holocaust. Along with concern from State Department officials that European refugees might be blackmailed into acting as double-agents for Germany, the general public voiced reluctancy as well due to “economic depression, xenophobia, and antisemitic feelings.”

Sound familiar?

Though the United States did relax its stringent quotas in 1945, when President Truman signed the Truman Directives, which would admit 137,450 Jews into the United States over the next seven years, the damage had already been done. So, to avoid repeating history, our nation must go beyond simply doling out money. More crucially, we must not allow fear of a group of people — no matter how they look or what they believe — add to their suffering, whether in body, mind, or spirit.