Arriving in Toronto on Dec. 13 (something I’ve done for well over 50 years since my wife is from there) the first thing on the news was the arrival of 13 Syrians who had just landed after spending several months in a holding camp in Europe.
The atmosphere was festive as the arrivals were greeted by their hosts. In this case their hosts were an Armenian Community group. As expected there were hugs and interviews and they were obviously tired, but relieved. The leader of the host group expressed fear that they might not have enough resources to meet all their needs, but was confident that assistance from the government would arrive.
Two days later 163 landed in Toronto and on this occasion the newly elected prime minister was there to greet them. The new head of state reflects what I have always thought about Canada – cautious, peaceful and welcoming. And again, the news was full of their arriving and the usual sighs of relief and expressions of appreciation.
Two days later another plane load of 161 landed, this time in French speaking Quebec. Again the premier of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal were on hand to greet the new arrivals. In all of these cases the families are sponsored by local groups, but this time they were greeted by relatives – some meeting relatives they had never seen before and for others the separation had been many years.
Initially, I didn’t think much about the fact that several of my in-laws were not native Canadians. My father-in-law came from Albania when he was in his teens and did what one expects of a new arrival – worked in a meat packing company, on the railroad, etc., and finally opened a restaurant with his cousin in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in Toronto.
For many years the two of them kept it open 24 hours a day. Although he was raised a Muslim, he became part of a Christian Church. He was quite successful, and when the apartment above the restaurant became less than satisfactory, they moved to the suburbs. My sister-in-law was a refugee from East Germany at age five, but her family finally landed in Canada. There is also a cousin who married a native of Italy.
The U.S. has historically been one of the most open states for accepting refugees. The number of refugees follows the ups and downs of international tension. After WWII more than a half million European refugees were settled here.
It was during this time that the Wilmington Friends Church sponsored a German family. Another spike occurred following the Vietnam War in the late ’70s and continuing for many years when Southeast Asian refugees were accepted. Well over a million came to the U.S. It was also during this crisis that the local Friends Church helped resettle a family from that region here in Wilmington.
There is no doubt that there have been periods of strong anti-immigrant feelings in our country. It seems that this is one of those times, but it contrasts dramatically with our close allies. Germany is resettling some one million primarily from Syria. France, even after the horrific terrorist attach in Paris just weeks ago will be accepting 25,000 from the same region. Canada has committed itself to the same number.
Where does this leave the U.S., whose history is full of immigrants, both refugees and simple migrants? We pride ourselves as a country of immigrants. Our current government has established a goal of 10,000 refugees primarily from Syria for this fiscal year, but there is a loud outcry from many corners against this goal and there is reason to believe it may not succeed.
It seems we are going through an identity crisis with Donald Trump leading the way. I am quite surprised that those I thought were moderate voices from Ohio, Kasich and Portman for instance, are following this parade (or leading it).
At this time it seems that all we can do is hope that more moderate voices will emerge and help us find that identity that served us so well in the past – symbolized by the Statue of Liberty given to us by France in 1886 as a statement of liberty and democracy.
These European countries accepting the refugees are not oblivious to the issues related to security. It seems that they are committed to their fellow humans and are willing to take the risk – something we may be unwilling to do.