(This article originally appeared in the Register-Guard newspaper, March 14, 2017)
I’ll be landing in Greece toward the end of this month as part of an international research team, looking into the Syrian exodus. Over 8,000 refugees are currently languishing on Aegean islands, waiting for their asylum applications to be reviewed. Tens of thousands more have made it to the mainland, but they continue to live in limbo, hoping for miracles, relying on basic compassion just to see another sunrise. One cluster we’ve arranged to visit includes about 400 people, barely hanging on in an abandoned school building in Athens. Nearby shopkeepers are sympathetic, providing food when they can and use of their bathrooms. Still, at best, these refugees receive one meal a day, provided by overwhelmed non-profits and an ever-changing cast of volunteers.
The refugees are mostly shopkeepers, taxi drivers, families with small children—ordinary people, driven from their homes in Aleppo by a brutal civil war. They are the opposite of terrorists—these are people who wanted nothing more than to continue leading peaceful, ordinary lives. These are the people the terrorists were trying to kill. They’re frightened. They’re heart-broken. All of them have lost friends or family members. All of them are working through bottomless grief.
Before they came, Greece was already in economic crisis, making the country’s generosity in trying to accommodate this invasion all the more remarkable. The country is in no position to pick up the tab.
And there’s not much the refugees themselves can contribute. They’re essentially powerless. They cannot legally work. They don’t speak Greek. They lack even the most basic medical or dental care. To add to their misery, they’ve been repeatedly attacked by the Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group, in a variety of incidents nationwide. If these assailants’ intentions are to persuade Syrians to leave, their efforts will most certainly fail—not for a lack of willingness on the part of the exiles, but because there’s no place else to go. The rest of Europe, overwhelmed, has increasingly declared itself off-limits.
A year ago America would have been the obvious alternative—the shining city on a hill, where the Statue of Liberty beckons to the world’s tired and poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Now this offer of sanctuary has been withdrawn as well–at a moment when the demand has never been greater. There are over 60 million refugees worldwide—more than at any other time in history—desperately hoping that almost any country will take them in. Despite that fact, in the 2017 federal fiscal year, the limit on refugees entering the U.S. is slated to fall from 110,000 to 50,000, with restrictions pointedly aimed at Muslims and, even more specifically, Syrians.
And it gets worse. In just the past few weeks U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have initiated aggressive round ups of undocumented individuals already here, tearing families apart with reckless disregard for the damage they’re inflicting. Agents have stopped legitimate visitors and green card holders in American airports based on race, religion, nationality or other arbitrary features, locking them in holding cells, terrorizing and humiliating them. None of the detained have posed threats to the U.S. They’ve ranged from the humble working poor to people of some prominence, such as 70-year old Australian children’s author Meme Fox or French Holocaust historian Henry Rousso. Our federal government has slammed America’s doors in the faces of any and all comers, thinly disguising this ideologically-driven racist purge as a prudent move in support of greater national security. The motivations behind these cowardly and selfish acts have nothing to do with protecting us—but everything to do with promoting division and alienation. If these repressive measures succeed, they will shred what’s left of America’s reputation as a nation.
I refuse to believe that Americans truly want to turn their backs on the rest of the world. Certainly in my lifetime, our identity as a people has centered on our generosity. That image has now been horribly tarnished.
The question now is, what should we do about all this? The answer is: whatever we can—but clicking “like” won’t be enough. We need to become truly engaged. Vote. Write. Call. Donate. Organize. Resist. Back in the 1700s, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Please take his words to heart. Use your personal gifts. Bring whatever you’ve got to the table. For the sake of our nation, it’s time for all hands on deck.
Tod Schneider serves as an advocate for the Refugee Resettlement Coalition of Lane County. His Arizona-based research team, the Interprofessional Studio for Complexity Thinking (www.interSCT.org ) heads for Greece at the end of March. Donations to help feed refugees during the trip can be contributed at https://www.gofundme.com/helpfeedrefugees