I think of him when I read about the refugee crisis in Europe. An estimated four million Syrians have left their country because of its civil war, and 60 million people have been displaced by conflicts across the world.
We in the U.S. have a responsibility to do more than just accepting the 10,000 refugees that President Obama has proposed to admit. America destabilized the region when George Bush went to war in Iraq. We are the biggest per capita contributor to climate change, a factor in the Syrian civil war, and our Congress has been unwilling to address the issue.
My father was 15 when he became a refugee. It was 1917, and the Russian revolution erupted in the middle of a world war. He and his family had to flee from their home in St. Petersburg. They went south to the Crimea, then by train behind enemy lines through Kiev and Warsaw to Riga in Latvia. With the Red Army closing in in early 1919, they were rescued by a British ship, which took them to Denmark. My father, shown in the photo at the top at age 17, describes all this in his memoir, Emigre. My father’s family was on a list slated for execution, and in fact his two uncles were killed back in St. Petersburg.
Denmark took in a lot of immigrants in the 1990s. A study found that many Danes shifted to more skilled jobs and away from manual labor as a result of the influx. Immigrants tend to contribute more to their new home than they take from it, bringing new skills, taking jobs that are hard to fill, and starting new businesses. This is especially true in countries with low birth rates, such as many nations in Europe.
After spending several years in Denmark, my father came to the U.S. in 1923. He had no job prospects or friends, spoke little English, and had only $300 in his pocket. He boarded a train and headed for Colorado, where he worked as a miner and as a waiter in a tuberculosis sanitarium (shown in photo), and later as a pall bearer at a funeral home in San Francisco. He had been in the U.S. for 27 years when I was born, and eventually worked for the State Department.
A British study found that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. In the U.S., giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and creating more employment-based visas would promote economic growth and lower the budget deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
We should probably get used to scenes like the Syrian refugees angrily confronting fences and barbed wire in Hungary. As our planet continues to heat up, there will be more mass migration as farmers are unable to sustain themselves and low-lying areas are inundated.
The Syrian civil war was preceded by the worst four-year drought in its history, driving farmers and herdsmen from the land into cities, where the government did little to help them. In Iraq, people have been demonstrating over lack of access to air conditioning. Iran, whose largest lake has shrunk in size by 80 percent in the last decade, has experienced misery much worse than New England’s recent heat wave. One day in July, the temperature reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit while the dewpoint was an unbearable 90.
My father experienced hardship in adjusting to his new country, at times not knowing where his next meal would come from. But he adapted and thrived, and many of the refugees from Syria and Afghanistan can too, if given a chance.
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