Monday, March 21, 2016

Refugees Still and Again!

Just because today's news reports focus on the presidential campaign does not mean that the flood of refugees has ebbed or that their plight has improved.  There is increasing evidence that it worsens.  The conflict in Syria continues to produce unfathomable human misery.  To date 500,000 people have been killed.  7 million people remain internally displaced.  4 million more have fled Syria's borders.  Most live in makeshift refugee shelters, primarily in Jordan and Turkey.  Too few have made their way to freedom.  A mere 2,500 have found a home in the United States.

I do not know how else to read this story but through the prism of Jewish history.  We too have known suffering and wandering while the world turned an indifferent eye.    

I am the son of refugees. My parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to New York in 1947. I grew up among refugees, and until I was seven or eight, refugees were the only adults I knew. I just want to say a few things that I've learned from my experience about who refugees are.
The first thing I will say about refugees, the most conspicuous characteristic of them is that they love life, and that they are prepared to endure unimaginable hardship, so as to preserve life, their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the lives of their traditions and their communities. Nobody imperils their children in dangerous sea voyages, and treks across mountains unless they believe they are rescuing their children from an even greater danger that certainly awaits them. So the first thing I learned from my parents and my cousins and the community in which I grew up, is that refugees love life. 
...I also learned that refugees are people who have felt abandoned by the world. It is a terrible, terrible feeling I can report, as the son of people who felt abandoned by the world. And all the rescue efforts, and all the resettlement efforts that will be made, and God knows, there are very, very few for us to boast about, will not erase, ever, that feeling that at some point the world abandoned them.

And this leads to my final point, and this was the thing about the refugees that I knew, that most pained me; it is that they are people who feel that if the entire world had been destroyed, when my parents' world was destroyed, it would have been coherent; it would have been apocalyptic, but it would have been coherent. But what happened was that only their world was destroyed and the rest of the world went along on its course, and so not only were they confronted with the magnitude of the indifference of the world to the destruction of their world, but they also, after death, as it were, had to have a second life, and after had to pick themselves out of the ashes, and then they had to do completely banal and trivial things. Like in my mother's case, run a candy store, and in my father's case run a furniture shop, and then have children, and then buy their children clothes, and then find schools for their children, all the while remembering that everything that they loved had died, had been destroyed. And this was something about my parents and those refugees that I will never forget. There was this haunted quality.
And I would add that I continue to remain haunted by this abandonment and my acquiescence to it. Their abandonment has now become my doing, or undoing.  I stand among those who have abandoned others, who have turned away from the suffering of my fellow human beings.  I go about my ordinary days as others imperil their lives.  These days I go out to restaurants, I watch movies while others run for their lives--literally.  They risk their lives so their children might have a morsel of bread, so that they might know life. I am consumed by my banalities.

Listen to their stories.  Hear their voices.  Take note of their pain.  The second of the refugees, Kassem Eid, gives powerful voice to these feelings of abandonment.  (He begins at minute 18.)  His words sting.



Elie Wiesel reminds us about the meaning of our past sufferings and our current duty to speak out. The disadvantaged and oppressed have few else to serve as their voice. Wiesel states:
Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
We dare not turn aside.  We dare not return to our trivialities.

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