Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Open America's Doors To Syrians

One night during my field work in the Arab Gulf, I received a dinner invitation. Since I had no car, I asked my host if someone might be able to give me a ride. My host obliged and I arranged to meet his friend, Hamid (not his real name) promptly at 8:00pm. At 8:30pm he pulled up and I introduced myself. Upon learning I was American, he apologized and I asked him why. He replied, "If I had known you were American, I would have come on time."

On that car trip and on many other, I learned more about my colleague. Hamid is a Syrian who had lived his whole life in the Gulf. He is kind and genuine, and has a good sense of humor. He is married and works in the banking sector. His son likes to play with plastic airplanes. His daughter is a fan of "Gangnam Style" by Psy, and is named after one of the many types of flowers in the Boston Public Garden, where Hamid went to graduate school.

Eventually I stopped hearing from Hamid, but thought little of it, recognizing that sometimes people get busy. Months later, he called out of the blue. Apologizing for his radio silence, Hamid explained he had been very stressed. His mother and sister were still in Syria. They were close to where fighting had been taking place between Bashar al-Assad's military and rebel forces. "Honestly, I support Bashar," he told me. "Because if he wins at least there will be peace."

Hamid's story is just one among millions. For Syrians caught in an impossible situation, the only solution is to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Awaiting them in Syria is death - often by chemical weapon or barrel bomb attacks - and destruction. The political situation is complicated but the humanitarian situation is clear - Syria has become, for its residents, a living hell.

The story is one familiar to many Americans, or their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Many members of my American Jewish community fled a Europe ravaged by antisemitism, assaults, pogroms, and eventually exterminations. In Manhattan, a Jewish immigrant community emerged on the Lower East Side. Many spoke only Yiddish. They lived alongside other communities - Italians, Greeks, and Irish - seeking respite from war. 

The Jewish immigrant community was not necessarily less of a security threat than today's Syrian refugees, and was probably a greater one. Jews were actively involved in or supporters of radical communist movements at the time, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the children of immigrants from this community. Nonetheless, the contributions of Jewish immigrants to the US from Albert Einstein to Irving Berlin speak for themselves, and  the success of that Jewish community is a fundamentally American story. It's no wonder the US Holocaust Museum, Anti-Defamation League, Joint Distribution Committee, Reform Action Center, and HIAS have been outspoken on behalf of Syrian refugees - their story is ours.

Now a new generation of refugee families - fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters - await the opportunity to write the next chapter of this story. 

Practically, admitting Syrian refugees is good politics. It is relatively cheap, demonstrates American leadership, allows us to capitalize on the skills and expertise of the 39% with college degrees, gives the US leverage to pressure the EU over its refugee policies, and highlights the pluralism at the heart of the American nation. These refugees are not a significant security threat. They are vetted extensively, and seek only the opportunity afforded to every single one of the families whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now sit in governors offices across the United States of America. 

But it is also consistent with our fundamental values to admit Syrian refugees. As a country of immigrants, we work together to address not only out challenges, but those of the world. We are risk takers, entrepreneurial and tenacious when we find ourselves in a bind. Most importantly, we are compassionate beyond material self-interest. Accepting refugees is good politics, but it is also consistent with our most fundamental American values.


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