Two recent executive orders called for shutting America’s doors to the most vulnerable and desperate refugees. Although enforcement of the orders has been stayed, the debate continues. Underlying the text of these orders is the fear that Syrian refugees, among others, pose a threat to America. Sadly, this reaction is not new. Ours is often referred to as a “nation of immigrants.” Yet, previous waves of newcomers have consistently suffered the consequences of prevailing fears—that they would be an economic burden, be a security threat or lead to the corruption of American culture.
Irish Catholics began arriving in the U.S. in the 1840s, fleeing the ravages of famine in their home country. There was a fear that their Catholic faith was incompatible with American values and patriotism.
Chinese began coming to America in the 1850s, many of whom worked to build the transcontinental railroad. At a time of economic hardship, there was a fear that the Chinese were taking jobs and causing lower wages.
Southern and Eastern Europeans, including Italians, Hungarians, Poles and Jews, began immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers in the 1880s in search of economic opportunity and freedom from persecution. There were fears that these new immigrants were taking jobs and that they brought with them un-American ideas.
Anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S. were prevalent as many Jewish refugees attempted to escape Europe during World War II. One poll from 1939 shows that 61% of Americans did not want the U.S. accepting 10,000 refugee children, who were mostly Jewish.
Since 1980, the U.S. has accepted about 3 million refugees. Polling shows that nearly every refugee group faced negative public sentiment. But, in each case, the U.S. had leaders who were willing to buck public opinion and introduce legislation that would allow entry of refugees into this country.
This is a far from exhaustive list of the totality of immigration to the U.S. However, it is a useful background against which to consider our present moment. We understand the needs that brought previous generations to American shores and the drive that led to their success. We readily recognize the contributions of these waves of immigrants—Irish, Chinese, Italians, Poles, Jews, etc.—in building our cities, and in building our country. American society would be unrecognizable without the energy and cultural contributions of immigrants and refugees. Clearly, these historical prejudices were a mistake. However, if we can so readily reject the xenophobia of the past, why are today’s fears about Syrian refugees any different?
As a nation, we have repeatedly and clearly been wrong about previous waves of newcomers. To many of us, those immigrants are our ancestors, whose journey, will to succeed, and the struggles they overcame are a source of pride – and helped build a great nation. We look back in shame at America’s history of mistrust, suspicion and prejudice towards those who previously came to these shores.
It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Shadi Martini, MFA's Director of Humanitarian Relief & Regional Relations, speaking at Temple Bat Yahm in Orange County, California
Click the links below to read more about MFA's latest activities:
SYRIAN CRISIS UPDATE
This past March, the number of registered Syrian refugees surpassed 5 million, according to UNHCR. It is a tragic marker and that number will likely continue to climb, as the civil war rages into a seventh year. Yet this number does not give a full picture of the current state of the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Syria’s borders with Turkey and with Jordan remain closed. A very limited number of Syrians are able to cross the borders now, mainly through smuggling. A small number of refugees are still able to get into Lebanon, but the government has stopped the UN from registering these refugees since 2015. Inside Syria, there are 6.3 million internally displaced people (IDPs) with no recourse and little means to escape.
In early April, the world got a glimpse of the horrors taking place within Syria. Sarin gas was used to kill and injure hundred of civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, a city in southern Idlib, where battles were raging between the regime and opposition forces. In mid-April, a deal was reached for the evacuation of thousands of residents from two pro-government Shiite towns (Al-Fuah and Kfarya) and two rebel-held and predominantly-Sunni towns (Madaya and Zabadani) that have been under crippling sieges. As the evacuations began, over 100 Syrians were killed in a bomb attack on the buses carrying the evacuees. Population transfers in Syria occur on a sectarian basis and have become a common tactic in the civil war. Transfers were previously done by the Syrian government in the Al Waer district of Homs, in recent weeks; in Eastern Aleppo; and in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus.
Pastor Andrej Stehlk and members of Rutgers Presbyterian Church welcoming a Syrian refugee family at the airport in New York
On February 7, 2017, the Khoja family arrived at JFK International Airport where they were greeted with cheers from members of Rutgers Presbyterian Church. The Khojas are a Kurdish-Syrian refugee family originally from Aleppo. Three years ago, they fled Syria for Turkey. After an exhaustive application and vetting process, the Khojas were granted admittance to U.S. The family gave up the lease on their Istanbul apartment, cancelled their utilities, packed their belongings and prepared for their scheduled flight to New York on January 31. However, before the Khojas could leave Turkey, they received a devastating phone call — the administration’s travel ban had just gone into effect. The family, disheartened, could do nothing but wait.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., members of Rutgers Church, who had sponsored the Khoja family, were themselves dismayed. But they refused to give up. Congregants continued to visit the New Jersey apartment that had been secured for the family, filling it with a generous amount of donated furnishings and household items. They attended rallies, held candlelit vigils and prayed. Church committee members remained in contact with organizations like Church World Service and the ACLU, hoping for good news. Six days later, they finally received the news they were waiting for — a federal judge in Washington state had issued a temporary hold on the travel ban. The Khojas were on their way. As the Khojas made their long journey, all involved held their breath. When they finally touched down, all breathed a sigh of relief. As the Khojas deplaned, Rutgers members greeted them not only with cheers, but with kindness, compassion, and assurances that they were now among their American family.
MFA Welcomes New POs
Greater NYC Families for Syria
NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee
Sunnyside Reformed Church, Sunnyside, NY
Latest Alliance News