Taking In Refugees Is An American Value

My paternal grandparents always called themselves Russian. It wasn’t until I was in my teens and heard an interview with my father’s aunt that I got a sense that they may, instead, have come from near Minsk in Belarus — understandable, as Belarus was part of the Russian empire until WWI.

Online genealogy sites sometimes say they were from Esmin in Russia, which isn’t an actual place. Going back in the family tree, I find their ancestors came from Zembin, which looks like this in Cyrillic: Зембін, almost like Esmin. I suspect that’s where they come from, as it was a largely Jewish village and is about an hour outside of Minsk.

Here’s what would have happened to my family had they not moved to America: In July 1941, the Nazis occupied Zembin, setting up a ghetto for the Jewish community there. Two months later they liquidated the ghetto by executing 927 Jews, which seems to have been the entire Jewish population of the town.

I can do this with almost every branch of my family tree. My maternal great grandfather Isaac came from Warsaw, where somewhere in the area of a quarter of a million Jews were murdered by Nazis. My mother’s maternal grandparents came from Kishinev in Podolia, where there was a pogrom in 1903 and whose remaining Jewish community, numbering about 10,000, were later murdered by the Nazis.

This is why I feel strongly about the question of refugees. I just need to go back a few generations to discover my own family’s refugees, and discover that had they not fled, and been allowed into America, they would have died. Every single family member I have would not exist had it not been for America welcoming refugees.

We have a long history of being a safe shore for those in need. Emma Lazarus, in her poem about the Statue of Liberty, calls her the Mother of Exiles, a name I think we should reclaim for her. It’s foundational to our conception as a country, our sense that America is a place with a moral purpose in the world: That we take in those in need, that it forges our character and our strength. It is literally our motto: e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

Helping refugees is not something we do when convenient, or when we are in the mood to do it, or when the economy is right for it, or when they are refugees we like and we can turn away those we don’t like. It’s what we do because we are America, and that’s who we are, and anyone who walks away from that legacy and that obligation is turning their back on the very thing that makes us America. And, for many of us, most of us I would guess, it is turning your back on your own ancestors, who likewise came to these shores in need, and were let in.