No Turning Backs

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

St. Louis Ballet ad

— From “The New Colossus” by Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus, inscribed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty


The photograph halted our hearts and stopped us in our tracks, forcing us to confront the enormity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe: Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian, whose lifeless body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey after he, his mother and brother drowned when their refugee boat capsized.

An editorial in last Friday’s Washington Post points out that Aylan’s family was denied a Canadian visa and a Turkish exit visa, forcing them onto the overcrowded boat. The editorial adds that  “the boy was one of more than 2,600 refugees who have died trying to reach Europe this spring and summer, a toll driven by the abject failure of the European Union to create safe and legal means for refugees to seek asylum.”

The major reason for the unprecedented exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees has been the four-year civil war in Syria, More than 240,000 people have died in the Syrian war and 11 million people have been forced from their homes. Some 4 million have rushed to neighboring nations like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan and are enduring a harsh existence in severely overcrowded refugee camps. 

Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, clings to power even after he has resumed using chemical weapons against innocent civilians, an action which President Barack Obama has previously stated would be a “game-changer” and “crossing a red line.” 

Meanwhile in Europe, thousands of desperate refugees who were able to reach Hungary, many of them traveling by foot over an abandoned railway track, were treated with extreme harshness by the Hungarian authorities. Many were forced into miserable encampments enclosed in razor wire. There has been a critical shortage of food and medical supplies for the refugees, and many of them remain in a bureaucratic limbo as they await the papers they need to get to Austria and Germany, which to their credit, have welcomed the refugees. At this writing Hungary, bowing to international pressure, has allowed many of the Syrian and other refugees to make their way to Germany and Austria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has won international praise and admiration for her backbone and leadership in welcoming the refugees, despite a recent spike in anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi demonstrations in Germany, Austria and other European nations. At the same time, hundreds of benevolent ordinary citizens of Austria and Germany have come to the train stations and bus depots to welcome the refugees with food, clothing and medicine.

Despite initially turning their backs, some European nations have started to own up to their responsibilities in accepting immigrants. France has agreed to accept 24,000 asylum seekers over two years, England another 20,000 Syrian refugees, and the aforementioned Germany has pledged 6 billion euros to cope with the effort, and Merkel’s government has called on its EU partners to act on the crisis at a summit on Sept. 14.

Our own nation, which John F. Kennedy often described as “a nation of immigrants,” has resettled a shamefully paltry total, and we’ve been slow to respond to the need. To put it in perspective, Germany expects to register as many as 800,000 refugees and asylum seekers by year’s end. Most recently, Germany has said it could take in as many as 500,000 refugees per year.

Anti – immigrant rhetoric being expressed by American presidential candidates has poisoned the atmosphere for a serious consensus for action on the refugee crisis. While we are generally reluctant to evoke memories of the Holocaust in discussing current issues, it is impossible not to do so in this instance.  Books like “While Six Million Died” by Arthur Morse documented how rigid quotas on immigration prevented the United States from accepting large numbers of Jews who were desperately trying to flee the Nazi death machine.

During the Holocaust, a Canadian cabinet official, when asked how many Jewish refugees should be admitted to the nation infamously said, “None is too many.”  The response was anathema then and it is now. Neither xenophobia nor Islamophobia should be invoked to prevent the urgent action required by the refugee crisis. As the famous philosopher George Santayana memorably warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”