US must not turn its back on refugees

Morris J Vogel, Issue 117/03, p14, 01.03.2017
Our future depends on remaining true to our national heritage
As the leader of a museum dedicated to the stories of how people from many lands became Americans, and how Americans became a people, I was a little fearful when I heard the phrase “America first” reintroduced into the national conversation. That a new executive order barring refugees quickly followed summoned up unattractive visions of “blood and soil” nationalism.

But the perspective of the Tenement Museum suggests how our attitudes towards refugees can also be bound up with a more positive reading of our national interest: our success as a people has often depended on what other peoples have lost. We have benefited when other nations – beset by war, intolerance or stupidity – have driven away their most ambitious and capable subjects and citizens. We have derived much of our energy and our creativity from the hopes that so many refugees have brought to our shores.

Because so many people, from so many places, have followed their dreams to this nation, Americans – from the birth of the republic onward – have had to grasp for ways to feel unified in the face of great diversity. Lacking the shared ethnicity, faith, culture, history, language and geographic boundaries that nations ordinarily draw on to define themselves, we have based our national identity, instead, on shared values: democracy, inclusivity, and a willingness to welcome strangers and their contributions to our future.

The US has been a refuge for the oppressed, for religious minorities seeking safe harbour and for outcasts fleeing injustice. Newcomers sometimes received hesitant welcomes but, in our best moments, Americans have responded to immigrants with the confidence that we are always creating a new nation, always becoming more than we already are. There is nothing more American than reaching out with a hand of hope to those who feel unsafe and hopeless.

I say this as the guardian of our museum’s mission to celebrate the role that immigration has played, and continues to play, in shaping our national identity. I also say this as a refugee myself. I was born in Kazakhstan to parents who had fled eastwards from central Europe when world war two broke out. At the end of the war, my parents began to make new lives in a displaced-persons camp in Germany’s American Zone. While trying to rebuild and move forward, we were in a state of suspended animation, unsure where our future would ultimately lie. But we were lucky. They – and I – were among the 80,000 Jews fortunate to enter the US under quotas established by the Displaced Persons Acts of 1948 and 1950.

Allowing my family to come to the US was not a politically easy decision – more than two-thirds of Americans polled at the time were against the plan, citing economic and security concerns. But it was the American decision. Over the past 70 years, in the face of unspeakable humanitarian crises, Americans have repeatedly struggled, doubting what we are capable of as a nation, but ultimately reaffirming the values that built this country. And we have learned – refugees start new businesses, go to college, contribute to their communities and enrich our nation. Yet unreasoned fears remain.

As someone who learns from and teaches the stories of these newcomers every day, it is clear to me that we cannot fear an influx of refugees merely because they are different. We cannot let fear of the other get in the way of our becoming ourselves. The refugees who have escaped and those still to come depend on our confidence in fundamental American values. I understand this intimately; if not for the humanitarianism and confidence that led the US to take in refugees after world war two, I would not be here today to speak out for my fellow human beings, who might one day become my fellow citizens.

When we believe in and act on our traditional American values, we are better as a nation. Stronger. Safer. More vital. Our future depends on remaining true to our national heritage, even in the face of scepticism. Let’s act to aid refugees and put the US – and our long-cherished values – first.

Morris J Vogel is the president of Tenement Museum in Lower East Side, New York