A friend asked me last night if I would take a Syrian refugee family into my home. It was not a quick answer but I will explain to you:
- Refugee resettlement programs do not ask people to take families into their homes. They ask for help being a local friend, a person to help them maneuver in their new world. To help set up the apartment, which the organization finds, with furniture, which the organization helps find. There is some outlay in money, to buy a list of basic toiletries and some groceries to start the pantry, but for the most part the host’s involvement is time. Time to teach about the neighborhood and town. Time to teach about the United States and its freedoms, something refugees have not experienced. A commitment to help them become Americanized. How do I know this? I was one of two families that helped a Russian Jewish family settle in West Hartford, Connecticut several decades ago. I saw how the family learned English, got jobs, bought a house, had a new baby. I saw them become almost indistinguishable from the thousands of other residents of our town with one exception: their pride in being New Americans was evident. And they practiced it. They took the time to be informed and involved. They voted and they volunteered on community projects. Why did they do that? Partly it was in their own nature but it also was something I tried hard to nurture in them.
- I am Jewish. Asking me to take in a Muslim family who comes from a nation that promises to wipe Israel off the face of the earth is a ridiculously senseless question. But I paused, and finally said yes. I would help a family get resettled here. I would teach them not only what being an American is like, but what being a Jew is like. I would teach, as I have learned by going to church with my husband, that we have more commonalities than differences and as soon as we all realize that, peace is possible.
- I am Jewish. I know my history. He had no recollection of ever hearing about the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish German refugees in 1939. Most of the passengers had applied for refugee visasto enter the United States. It was well known what atrocities were happening in Europe. But the ship was turned away and ended up returned to Germany, and the passengers went to the death camps. We Americans have this blood on our hands. We righteously stuck to quotas, ignoring the horrific conditions that the refugees were fleeing. This situation was not unique. Even children, as Chris Christie declared so vehemently today, were not wanted.
- I asked him questions about his own family’s migration to the United States. What had prompted it (famine) and who had some (a young male adult). He brushed away the similarity to the many young men feeling Syria, saying all of his great-grandfather’s family had died of the famine. He said the current situation shows that Muslim men do not value their families. I told him how my maternal grandfather had left the shetl in what is now Poland and made his way to New York City, earning money as a tailor, and then sending for his sisters within the next few years. I pointed out that many women and children are fleeing. He chose not to respond.
So, my answer to my friend was yes, I would help resettle a Syrian family. That’s what a good American citizen who loves this nation does. That’s what someone who refuses to be terrorized decides to do. That’s what someone who understands that they have an inherent ability to help teach new ways. That is what someone who is willing to take the time and make the effort to move off my own comfort a bit does to help ease pain and suffering in the world.
Is there potential danger? Oh yes. There are ways to minimize it that people trained to work with immigration and terrorism have experience and expertise to propose. It is beyond the scope of what I personally can do. But I also know this: I have more risk of being hurt or killed by someone angered by my opinion who is home-grown here in the United States, than I have a chance of being hurt or killed by a terrorist. The angry people in this country who seem to be unable to work to a common goal need some help. That solution is harder than the one dealing with refugees.