War and migration

Citizens of the United States might assume that, when the wealthy and powerful people of the world gather to talk about important issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are high on the agenda. The rest of the world has some interest in the result of this year’s presidential election, but many other items are of far greater interest, even to Americans.

War and migration is probably the greatest preoccupation for those concerned about contemporary events. Violence in north Africa and west Asia—and the many thousands of people fleeing that violence—affects lives and businesses all over the world. No one who is involved in politics or in economic decisions can afford to ignore what is happening.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus noted that “wars and rumors of war” would continue until the Day of his return. One hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War would be the last war in history. Instead, it has been labeled “World War I.” Jesus was right; Wilson was wrong. Migration has also been a constant theme of history. People move to escape violence. They move to find jobs or to locate food. They move to enjoy better weather. They move to escape oppressive governments and to find greater freedom. Sometimes they move simply because they are bored.

In some cases governments encourage immigration. Russia once invited German families to relocate into Russia and farm land that was empty. American businesses (such as the railroads) used to advertise in Europe for workers, promising a better life in the New World. The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Just as often, governments try to limit immigration. Ancient China and ancient Rome built walls to keep the “barbarians” out of their land. Rome even paid some “barbarians” to live on the border and defend it from the next wave of immigrants. Tourists still visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, but those walls were not very effective barriers against the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Goths, or the Huns.

The United States once set the standard for an effective modern method of welcoming refugees. When thousands of people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States found homes for many of those people. When 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in 1980, the United States again found homes for them. Both times, the refugee families originally were housed on government property, such as underused military bases. Sponsors were sought and found for these families: relatives of the refugees, other families from the same land, church groups, charitable organizations, and anyone else who was willing and able to help. Refugees were documented and observed; they did not disappear into the general population. Sponsors cared for them and helped them to find homes and jobs and to adjust to life in a new and different culture.

The change was not always easy. American citizens were uneasy about these refugees from another part of the world. In 1980, rumors traveled quickly that the Cuban refugees contained many criminals, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables. In retrospect, the number of such people among the Cuban refugees was proportionally less than in the general population of the United States. Acts of violence did occur among the refugees in their camps while they waited for sponsors. Some of the refugees were displeased with the quality of life in the camps and with the length of time it took to find sponsors for all of them. Their protests over their condition were not always peaceful. Eventually, the United States was able to absorb these many refugees. They are part of the mosaic of cultures that compose the United States today.

Patterns of migration in the twentieth century actually affirm the values of American government. People fled the totalitarian socialist governments that called themselves Communist, seeking the freedom of societies that were democratic and capitalist. The Berlin wall was a powerful symbol of the difference; it was built, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep East Germans from leaving for the west. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a non-Communist south, a few Vietnamese families moved north, but a million Vietnamese moved south. The escape from Cuba in 1980 is another reminder of the difference: that one vast migration alone dwarfs the number of people who have tried to enter Cuba during the decades that the Castro brothers have been in charge there.

The system that worked in 1975 and 1980 can work again today. International cooperation can shelter refugees from north Africa and west Asia for a short time while sponsors are found to integrate these people into a new culture. They can be documented and observed. The risk that terrorists lurk among these refugees is no greater than the risk of home-grown terrorists. Sponsors can be trained and equipped to watch for warning signs and report their suspicions to the proper authorities. That would make these refugees likely to be less dangerous than the boy next door.

Compassion for human beings requires more than walls and guards on the border. Today’s needy refugees can become the hard-working foundation of American and European enterprise tomorrow. Fear of people who are different is a common human trait. Refugees probably will be more frightened of their new neighbors (who outnumber them) than the neighbors are of them. Genuine compassion and sincere curiosity about those who are different can overcome such fear. While compassionate people deplore the violence that makes migration necessary, a touch of kindness can change a terrible situation into a blessing, both for the refugees and for those who welcome them. J.