U.S. faces crucial moment on refugees

Shukri Muhamed, left, and her brother Ibrahim, 6, at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Their Somali mother thought they would be in the U.S. by now, but they've been at the camp since 2009.
Shukri Muhamed, left, and her brother Ibrahim, 6, at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Their Somali mother thought they would be in the U.S. by now, but they've been at the camp since 2009.

As refugees, my family fortunately faced an open door to this country. It was August 1, 1938, when my father arrived with my grandparents on a boat called the Normandie. He was a 13-year-old fleeing Nazi Germany. His mom, a successful businesswoman in Munich and his dad, a published Yiddish poet, became chicken farmers in New Jersey.

When he was old enough, my father served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division fighting to stop Hitler, for which he was decorated with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. My father’s five children would become professionals and community volunteers. My family has spent the past 80 years giving back to this country that opened its doors to us.

It was May 13, 1939 — nine months after my family immigrated here — when 908 refugees who set sail from Germany on the St. Louis faced closed doors. They were turned away at the Cuban border. Their pleas for sanctuary in the U.S. received no response from President Roosevelt. They were forced to sail past Miami and return to Europe, where 254 of them perished in the Holocaust.

The world came together after World War II to create norms, conventions and structures to make sure that we would deal humanely and fairly with refugee crises in the future. We are turning our backs on that system.

Today we face the greatest global refugee crisis ever known: 65 million people are displaced. Among them are the Rohingya, the Yazidi, and those fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Burma.

Today we face a seven-year civil war in Syria that has left 5.6 million Syrians as refugees outside their country and 6.6 million displaced within Syria. Last month, dozens of Syrian citizens were killed and hundreds injured in a chemical attack allegedly executed by the Syrian regime. On April 11, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said, "I've never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria. It's got to end."

Just like 80 years ago, we are at a moment where we can create immigration policies that either open or close the doors to those most in need.

The Supreme Court is deliberating over the constitutionality of President Trump’s ban restricting travel from five Muslim-majority countries. Discriminatory policies limiting Muslim travel to the U.S. also are affecting the refugee program.

Trump agreed to accept 45,000 refugees this fiscal year. Halfway through the year, only 12,000 have arrived. Both the goals Trump has set and the number of refugees admitted are substantially below levels in the past. The Muslim population is being disproportionately impacted. Muslim refugee admissions are down more than 90 percent. In 2016, our country accepted 15,479 Syrian refugees, dropping to 3,024 in 2017, and only 11 so far this year.

Gandhi said, “Your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values.” The values we are modeling through our travel ban and refugee program are those of discrimination, Islamophobia and xenophobia. We are abandoning the basic American values of fairness and of welcoming immigrants.

Refugees enrich us economically, culturally and intellectually. They strengthen the fabric of our country. Eighty years ago, my father and grandparents found the shelter of freedom and democracy on these steady shores. Those are values we need to protect and extend to our global siblings who are suffering — whether they are Muslim or Christian or Jewish or no religion at all.

Rabbi Schindler is the Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. Email: schindlerj@queens.edu.