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Monday, October 17, 2016

Lighting the Way for Syrian Refugees -- The American History Lesson


 

History serves as a readily available documentary of past decisions and actions. British historian and academic George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), once said “Every true history must force us to remember that the past was as real as the present and as uncertain as the future.” This is pertinent to the United States in 2016 as it ponders the plan to admit Syrian refugees.

Fearing terrorism, many Americans are opposed to opening America to Syrian refugees, especially when the regional powers, Iran and especially (a richer and Arab country) Saudi Arabia, have done little. Presidential candidate Donald Trump believes the present vetting process is far too weak, and allowing these refugees into our country will surely allow a large number of terrorists to operate freely on American soil.
 
First of all, we must consider we do not elect the leaders of other countries. We must answer the call for refugees ourselves. Meanwhile England, Germany,Turkey, Lebanon – 29 countries are accepting refugees.

Dr. Ramy Arnaout of MIT and Harvard Medical School, now at the Beth Israel Deaconess medical center in Boston (Who also happens to be the child of Lebanese immigrants.), argues that it’s time for the U.S. to move aggressively in making room for more of the people displaced by the horrors in Syria.

Arnaout says …

The mantle of that legacy now falls to us. Syria’s huddled masses yearn not to breathe free—a luxury in war—but to breathe at all. Do the words with which we caption our defining monument not include these people?

“Syria gave us Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. “The business of the American people is business,” said Calvin Coolidge. As Americans, we should know a bargain when we see one. Syria is a fire sale. Lady Liberty's “golden door” should be open with Syrian refugees first in line.


The alternative is we keep that door shut—and consider outsourcing our conscience to oil sheikhs and mullahs.

Do we want to trust the future of the world we used to lead to the mercy, generosity, and tolerance of the Saudis? Are we content to play second fiddle to the Germans and Greeks? Or can we begin to salvage our tattered reputation and sense of self by demonstrating some basic human kindness?”

 (James Fallows. “Martin O’Malley Is Right: America Should Be Taking More Syrian Refugees.” The Atlantic. September 07, 2015.)
 
In support of Syrian immigration, President Obama says the “overwhelming numbers” of Syrian refugees referred to the U.S. by the U.N. have been women and children., and, in fact, 67 percent have been children under the age of 12 and women, according to State Department data.

Despite claims by those such as Donald Trump who say that the Obama administration plans to accept anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 Syrian refugees, by law, the administration can admit slightly more than 10,000 in fiscal year 2016, and no refugee commitments can be made beyond that.
Gina Kassem, who oversees the State Department’s refugee resettlement program in North Africa and the Middle East, says the primary focus is on those in need. The entire process takes between 18 and 24 months.

“Mostly we focus on victims of torture, survivors of violence, women-headed households, [and] a lot of severe medical cases,” she says

According to Kassem, less than half of one percent of those from Syria who resettle in the United States are single young men. Those who are qualify as among the most vulnerable, either because of severe medical needs or minors who don’t have family to support them.

(Bill Whitaker. “How the U.S. screens Syrian refugees. CBS News. October 16, 2016.)

Iain Levine, deputy executive director for program at Human Rights Watch, says,“Sowing fear of refugees is exactly the kind of response groups like Isis are seeking. Yes, governments need to bring order to refugee processing and weed out militant extremists, but now more than ever they also need to stand with people uprooted from their homes by ideologies of hatred and help them find real protection.”

 

Applying the History Lesson

Absorbing immigrants and refugees is always disruptive—for any nation, for any kind of refugees.
It may be beneficial to look back to the 1970s and President Gerald R. Ford's unwavering support of human rights as South Vietnam fell to the North. To be honest, President Ford is largely a forgotten man – a president who served a mere four years, a man who pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate and who opened the doors of America to Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. He did both of these things at great political risk to himself – he lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter – while believing that uniting the country in dark times was of the utmost importance.

By the time President Gerald R. Ford took office in 1974, the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War had been radically reduced. In 1975, renewed fighting saw communist-supported North Vietnamese forces pushing closer to Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, which was still a U.S. ally. Saigon,would soon fall to the North and the process of reunifying Vietnam would begin.

Facing the fall of South Vietnam, President Ford acknowledged the serious human rights issues facing many South Vietnamese residents. These included forced relocation, being held as political prisoners, and even death. Many abandoned their homes and sought asylum and refugee status in the United States and other Western nations.

Ford quickly organized a humanitarian, emergency military effort to evacuate refugees to the U.S. in 1975. In less than a week, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the capital city.

One hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese left South Vietnam that April, ten times the number for which the State Department had planned. In the final phase alone, in just over 14 hours’ time, Marine helicopters lifted out almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents—about 5,600 from Tan Son Nhut airport, another 2,206 from the roof and courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and dozens more from other locations.

(Bartholomew Sparrow. “Inside America's Massive, Messy Evacuation From Saigon.” New Republic. April 29, 2015.)

And, let history attest to the quick passage of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. Enacted on May 23, 1975, this Federal legislation established a resettlement assistance program for the Southeast Asian refugees. In 1976, the act was amended to include refugees from Laos. The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act allowed some 200,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese to enter the United States under a special “parole” status and provided financial assistance for their resettlement.

The act had been strongly supported by President Ford and opposed by those who feared an influx of Southeast Asian refugees after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. Many Americans at the time believed that a large number of refugees would deflate wages and create a social burden. At the time, unemployment in the United States hovered near double digits.

In a May 1975 article in the New York Times, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) commented that "barmaids, prostitutes and criminals" should be screened out as "excludable categories." Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) "charged that the [Ford] Administration had not informed Congress adequately about the number of refugees" -- as if anyone actually knew during the chaotic evacuation. "I think the Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam," said George McGovern in Newsweek.
 
Vietnam refugee Quang X. Pham, who served as a Marine pilot in the Persian Gulf War and authored the book A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey, recalled ...

"The new governor of California, Jerry Brown, was very concerned about refugees settling in his state. Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. . . . The secretary of health and welfare, Mario Obledo, felt that this addition of a large minority group would be unwelcome in California. And he said that they already had a large population of Hispanics, Filipinos, blacks, and other minorities." 
 
(Quang X. Pham. “A Lesson in History: Resettling Refugees of Vietnam.” All Things Considered. Public Radio. January 14, 2007.)

Yet, the President was steadfast. Even though Ford had described the Vietnam War as "a war that is finished as far as America is concerned," Ford's attention was now focused on the refugees.

To pave the way for these refugees’ arrival, Ford had been gathering a coalition of church groups, southern Democratic governors, labor leaders, and the American Jewish Congress to secure housing and jobs. Nonprofit groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Civitan International, and the International Rescue Committee, sponsored families while providing food, clothing, and shelter until the refugees could support themselves as the non-profit International Rescue Committee coordinated the Herculean effort.

Pham remembers …

I am not aware of any other politicians, antiwar protesters, esteemed journalists or celebrities visiting Fort Chaffee, Ark., where my family was temporarily housed for two months. But Gerald Ford did. 
 
April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month for us. But thanks to President Ford's leadership, we experienced America's kindness and generosity during our darkest days. We owe him our deepest gratitude in remembrance.”

(Quang X. Pham. “A Lesson in History: Resettling Refugees of Vietnam.” All Things Considered. Public Radio. January 14, 2007.)

Under the leadership of President Ford, American civil society began answering the call and assisting refugees' resettlement in countless ways. Within the days of their arrival on American shores, refugees were placed with sponsors throughout the nation. Generous and capable, American civil society helped to cultivate new and proud Americans.

 (Cynthia A. Bily. “Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975.” immigrationtounitedstates.org. 2015.)

Maintaining Human Rights With a Historical Significance

Michael Crichton – American best-selling author, physician, producer, and director – said,“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.” I believe America is the tree of freedom and liberty. In order for us to nurture its future, we must always be open to saving those in peril from war and destruction.

Like Vietnam of old, Syria is suffering from a terrible war, and like Vietnam, the refugee crisis can be tied to America's involvement in a regional conflict. Who can deny the United States was at least partly responsible for the refugee crises as the U.S.-led war in Iraq changed the region? Is it time to help refugees again? Brookings Institute reports over 80 percent of Americans, across party lines, believe strongly in the Golden Rule (spelled out as treating others as you want them to treat you).

Brookings claims …

“Even in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign that has been breathtaking in its exaggerations and racism, with devastating terrorism providing fuel, 59 percent of Americans say they are ready to accept Middle East conflict refugees, and 56 percent express openness to Syrian refugees specifically. These numbers increase dramatically among millennials (18 to 34 year olds), with 68 percent saying that they are supportive of taking in refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

“Not surprisingly, and as on many other issues, there is a deep divide across party lines, with 77 percent of Democrats expressing openness compared to 56 percent of Independents and 38 percent of Republicans. Among Trump supporters, only 22 percent are supportive, compared with 80 percent of Clinton supporters and 81 percent of Sanders.

“This majority could be larger, if it weren’t for exaggerated fears: A plurality of those who oppose receiving Middle East war refugees (46 percent) name concern about terrorism as the principal reason. Yet, Americans overestimate the terrorist threat emanating from refugees. When asked to estimate the number of refugees charged with terrorism since 9/11, only 14 percent say it’s fewer than five, while 28 percent estimate it to be 100 or more. The actual number is 3.”

(Shibley Telhami. “America’s puzzling moral ambivalence about Middle East refugees.” Brookings. June 28, 2016.)

These statistics suggest that despite the terrible toll and horror of terrorism, Americans can be persuaded to aim for much higher moral ground. The goal of 10,000 Syrian refugees is a drop in the bucket of an estimated 9 million Syrian refugees that have left their homes since 2011. Facts show (as of July, 2016) the United States has had a difficult time even implementing the modest target. So far, about 3,500 have been accepted.

If the U.S. could have started taking in hundreds of Syrians in 2011, when the country's civil war began, think of how many innocent lives might have already been saved. In large part this did not happen because President Obama's administration was extremely worried about the very terrorist threat that Republicans are hyping now. It's led the administration to be so cautious in processing applications that barely any refugees have qualified to come.

Once upon a time, in the 1970s, political divisiveness was very real, but it existed in a context that still allowed strong, committed leaders to uphold the United States' place as the moral conscience of the world. Then, without caving to fear mongering by political opposition and to raw, unfounded emotional anxieties of worried citizens, American leaders like President Gerald R. Ford understood the importance of the creed of fueling the lamp beside the golden door. They took their case to the American people who fiercely defended liberty, and they found unparalleled resolve in the brave people of the land.

In New York harbor, the mighty woman with the torch still stands as a beacon to those in exile. However, some now would gladly extinguish her flame of freedom while exhorting their baseless fears. Terror wins when America becomes walled and isolated to the rest of the world. It must not betray its very fabric of diversity. When one seeks freedom our shores represent the heart of the nation – let it forever remain open to those who share our desire for liberty. 

 
 
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