Monday, November 23, 2015


The world has been enveloped in fear and confusion as of late, and with good reason. Terrifying acts have been committed to other human beings. People have responded with anger, shock and mistrust. Many, perhaps most, Europeans have expressed opposition to the onslaught of Middle Eastern and African refugees flowing into their countries. Now, Americans are having similar reactions, concerned that letting in refugees will bring similar violence to the US. People have every right to be concerned.

I can across this article ( The Legacy of Nuremberg, 70 Years On | UConn Today) today shortly after finding out that my 93 year old poppy was hospitalized. My poppy lived in Poland for a dozen years before and during World War II.  When I was a child, his stories about "living in the woods" didn't make any sense to me, and I mostly ignored them. But as an adult I'm stunned by the heart-rending teenage years he spent dodging German capture. His younger sister was taken to a work camp-she volunteered to spare their older aunt from having to go (his sister, my aunt, survived and returned to American with my poppy, but would never speak about the subject, even with her children).  Being born in America, the Nazis interrogated my poppy and accused him of being an American spy, which is why he hid in the woods for two years, until he was chased down and discovered by Nazi-wielding dogs. He was enrolled to work on building a tunnel and although his treatment was better than that of those at the infamous concentration camps, he and others were forced to "escape" to walk miles back to his village to collect food to bring back to the camps to avoid starvation. Keeping my poppy was a conundrum for the Nazis, who were hesitant to kill him since he was American, and he used this to leverage power and save other men at the camp from punishment.

Two months after the war was over, he and the rest of his siblings returned to America. When he was ten they had moved to Poland from the US because my great grandfather believed that it would bring them a better life, where the family could live on a farm instead of working in a factory or at other blue-collar jobs in a bustling, impersonal New England city.

My poppy survived, but other Polish citizens weren't so fortunate, nor were the millions of Jews killed at the hands of the Nazis. The Nuremburg Trials for Nazi war crimes were not just about punishing those who had hurt others. The trials also integrated ideas about basic human rights into International Law. In the article I cited above, Glenn Mitoma, a professor of human rights and education, is quoted as stating,
“The kind of guiding ideology of the Nuremberg Trials was laying down principles that there is a baseline of natural law of universal human rights that’s there at all times. That guiding theory informs the emergence of human rights; the idea [is] that we have to advocate for human rights on a global level, and there are dimensions to our basic humanity that give us moral rights that form the fundamental basis of our morality and our humanity.”
I'm by no means a scholar on the Middle East. But I have read several books, including A House in the Sky, an autobiography of a female reporter kidnapped in Syria, and The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, a fictional book written by the American-born daughter of Afghani immigrants about the prison-like life of Afghani women both in the distant and not-so-distant past. I'm having a very difficult time trying to reconcile what I've learned from these and other sources with the idea that Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees should be left to solve their own problems. Preventing terrorism is absolutely a priority, but in reflecting on what my poppy went through, I can't conclude that the American (or European, or Catholic, etc) answer to this problem is to do nothing. I don't have the answers, and I don't know if bringing Syrian refugees here to the US is a solution. But I do know that it's too complicated an issue to have a knee-jerk response. Do you know how many refugees they propose to bring in? Do you know the demographics of those refugees (half will be children, and a large portion of the adult males will be over the age of 60). Do you know that only one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks posed as a Syrian refugee? In the proposed plan, bringing refugees here to the United States would have a big price tag but even so, each family would get barely enough to rent an apartment and feed themselves.

Many people are pointing out that we have our own crises to face at home in the US- millions of homeless veterans, school violence, budget cuts in school systems, dozens of problems caused by global climate change... the list goes on. All of these problems are important and need to be addressed, and bringing in refugees to America might not be the best option for us or for the refugees. But to simply stand idly and not offer any type of help at all is simply shameful. Talk about the 1%- nearly all present-day Americans were once refugees or immigrants, the problematic people looking for a new home. People fleeing fear and violence, like my poppy and his family- whose abuses were ignored by an international community that didn't want to make enemies nor take on charitable cases. This time around though, we don't have the excuse of ignorance.