Sassos: World must respond to refugee crisis

(September 22, 2015)


Migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan wait at the closed border crossing between Serbia and Hungary on Sept. 15. Hungary declared a state of emergency in two counties along its border with Serbia, after it used a boxcar fitted with razor wire to block a major entry point there.

The democratic uprising in Syria against the government in March 2011, has resulted in a brutal sectarian, ethnic and political conflict that has brought about the world’s largest humanitarian refugee crisis since World War II.

Between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Islamic State’s infiltration, Syrians have been subjected to murder, torture, sexual slavery and other abuses. Four million people, one-fifth of Syria’s population, have fled since 2011. Across the world, to date, more than 19 million people have been forced to flee repression in their countries. It is estimated that the refugee count increases by 42,500 every day.

It is evident that this is not a matter of faceless statistics, but a very present humanitarian crisis. Except for Germany and a few other Western European countries that have agreed to accept a significant number of refugees, the majority of European countries have resisted. Nativist movements in Eastern European nations have resuscitated anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the most outspoken in giving voice to the anti-refugee sentiment, claiming that the influx of these refugees would undermine “European and Christian values.” It is, in fact, Orban’s xenophobic rhetoric that threatens those very values of compassion, human dignity and freedom.

The Obama administration’s recent announcement of an increase in the quota of Syrian refugees to 100,000 by 2017 is welcome news. Recognizing the complexity and difficulty posed by migrations of such magnitude, we need to acknowledge that this is not only a European problem; it is a global issue. It calls upon us as Americans to respond generously. It requires the collective wisdom of all nations, including those of the Middle East. It demands addressing the political instability, repression and terror that cause the refugee crisis.

This human tragedy calls to mind another time in history. In July 1938, at the invitation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, representatives of 32 nations met in Evian-les-Baines, France, to discuss the issue of Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany. Although the group expressed its anguish over the plight of European Jews, no country volunteered to increase its quota of immigrants. Every country resorted to economic excuses. The Dominican Republic was the sole exception, which resulted in a small influx of Jews to the island. British resistance even curtailed Jewish immigration to Palestine.

The world’s failure to address the Jewish refugee crisis gave clear signal to Hitler that no one cared about the Jews of Europe. That fall, the Pogroms of Kristallnacht ravaged Germany. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 sealed the fate of European Jews. A later refugee conference between the United States and Great Britain in Bermuda, in 1943, also failed to address the Jewish refugee crisis. By the end of the war in 1945, 6 million Jews and 5 million other people had died.

The historic circumstances and the political backdrop of the present crisis are different, but the humanitarian disaster is a shame on the world. One Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach has become the face of tens of thousands of children among more than a quarter of a million civilians who have perished. The images of desperate families trying to board crowded trains with numbers written on their arms; people herded like animals in chain-link pens… are all too painful reminders of another time. Significantly, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has dedicated a room to the current Syrian refugee crisis

What can we do? Educate ourselves, donate to immigrant aid organizations, raise awareness and advocate for welcoming and responsible refugee and immigration legislation. We may not be able to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from trying. “If not now, when?”

Sandy Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University. Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.