It is estimated more than 9 million Syrians have fled their homes.
More than 4 million live in five host countries, mostly in temporary detention camps.
It’s an ancient saying, like a Midrash, that “charity begins at home.” It does, but if it only began at home I would not be here writing about immigration or about helping strangers – Muslim asylum seekers. Yes, Muslims. Why do I care? Because in 1944 I was saved by a stranger, a French Catholic nun who risked a great deal by harboring a Jewish child at her school in France.
If charity began only at home, then why did my mother give her last piece of Camay soap to Jeanette, the unmarried daughter of a Catholic neighbor so that the teen-aged mother could bathe the baby at a time when gentle soap was even rarer than food?
The movie pioneer of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle’s charity began at home when he brought over his entire family out of Laupheim Germany in the 1930’s. And then “Uncle Carl,” as he was lovingly called, brought over another 300 perfect strangers: asylum seekers, including Karen Schloss Heimberg’s father, a thirteen year old boy who was also saved by this one man’s courage.
Laemmle provided affidavits, guaranteeing the US State Dept. that he would personally feed, clothe, and shelter these strangers on American shores, circumventing this country’s notoriously heartless immigration laws.
There are surely others among us who would be living under vastly different circumstances, or not be living at all if it hadn’t been for the kindness of strangers. In 1943, Monsieur & Madame Pierre LaGarde took my family in for a week when the S.S. were about to raid our village. Were she and Pierre worried about terrorists less than a half a kilometer away? Were they afraid of depleting their food storage to feed my parents, my grandfather, and me when every gram of flour, sugar, or margarine was rationed? And what of the Lutheran German doctor on Krystall-Nacht who rescued my Tante Rosalie from the back of the burning synagogue in NiederKirchen on that brutal November night in 1938?
Shouldn’t Dr. Hahn and his son have been terrified of Hitler’s reprisals for rescuing an elderly Jewish woman? Or for us, perhaps, the fear should reside in helping a Syrian refugee family? But why? Or, rather, why not? Because we are all immigrants and asylum seekers of one kind or another.
As Brenda Wood said:
“America was built on opening its arms to the world. The quote on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t say, ‘Give me your English-speaking only, Christian-believing, heterosexual masses,’ it says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, tempest tossed. Have we forgotten that everyone of us Americans — except for Native Americans — are descendants of foreigners?”
Eighty years ago, the Jews of Europe were believed to be vile, corrupters, polluters of European purity. In short, we were seen as enemies of the state, a legacy that harkened back to Medieval times when blood libels would ravage Jewish communities during exact season of Passover. And yet, as with my family’s own story, it will be the kindness of strangers that will ultimately help protect the 60 million refugees currently searching for freedom from oppression. And so during this week of Passover, let us not forget that at one time we were all strangers in this strange and beautiful land called America.