Je Suis Refugee
America can — and must — do more to help Europe’s migrants. I’m living proof of why.
The reason I’m writing this in English -- and that I have a column in Foreign Policy at all -- is that 25 years ago, on April 28, 1990, my family arrived in the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union. It is a day the four of us mark every year because it was the beginning of a new, free, and prosperous life. Had it not been for the American Jews lobbying Congress and the White House on our behalf for years, had it not been for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, had it not been for the fact that the geopolitical struggle against the USSR was hitched up to its humanitarian ramifications, had it not been for Mikhail Gorbachev wanting to put a human face on socialism, I would be writing this in Russian. More likely, I probably wouldn’t be writing this at all.
The reason I’m writing this in English — and that I have a column in Foreign Policy at all — is that 25 years ago, on April 28, 1990, my family arrived in the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union. It is a day the four of us mark every year because it was the beginning of a new, free, and prosperous life. Had it not been for the American Jews lobbying Congress and the White House on our behalf for years, had it not been for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, had it not been for the fact that the geopolitical struggle against the USSR was hitched up to its humanitarian ramifications, had it not been for Mikhail Gorbachev wanting to put a human face on socialism, I would be writing this in Russian. More likely, I probably wouldn’t be writing this at all.
I think often about April 28, 1990, and the two years my parents spent waiting in lines at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It’s a moment that splits my life in two. What would my life have been like if not for all those political forces — and my parents’ foresight and dedication — that snapped my 7-year-old self on a radically different course?
I don’t know that my life would have been terrible, but I know that I would not have reconnected with my family’s Jewish heritage. I would not have gotten to follow my passion for history with some of the world’s leading scholars at Princeton. I would have a lot more health issues, and I would also probably be divorced with a couple of kids, living in a country that is increasingly hostile not only to its neighbors but to its own citizens. If I would’ve been anything like the friends and family we left behind, I would probably be scrambling for an exit — to Israel, Latvia, anywhere where the walls aren’t closing in like they are in Moscow.
Sometimes, my American life still feels like a dream and an accident. And in the course of it, I’ve come across many people whose lives are accidents, too — accidents far starker and more implausible than mine.
One of my closest friends is the son of a man who, at the age of six, was whisked out of prewar Prague by Sir Nicholas Winton as part of the Kindertransport that saved so many and yet so very few Jewish children. A friend from high school recently posted the desperate letters her German-Jewish grandfather sent to the United States, hoping someone would sponsor him as a relative, trying to escape the swelling sense of danger that was slowly squeezing him of oxygen. One of the first friends I made at college was a Bosnian Muslim refugee. We spoke sometimes of the sheer wonder that the two of us, two refugee kids randomly plucked from a bad place and planted in a good place, should end up at such an elite institution. Last fall, I attended the wedding of a friend, the granddaughter of Armenian refugees from the genocide, and a Bosnian refugee who had escaped Banja Luka on his own as a teenager.
All of these people’s lives in America are accidents of history and politics. Had war not come to Banja Luka or Prague or Berlin, had there not been rumors in 1988 that there would be pogroms in Moscow to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the christening of Rus, we would’ve lived on in those places. Some of us would have been born as other people, sure, but we would’ve found a certain blinkered happiness in things because we would not have known an alternative life.
But war did come. And though the pogroms in Moscow, happily, did not, the anti-Semitism that pushed Jews to the margins of a country where they’d lived for centuries did. These things came much like the draft notices for Assad’s army and the sweep of the Islamic State flag — unwanted, unbidden, and unyielding.
Luckily for me and all my friends who are also American accidents, there was the political will in the United States to help people like us. Or, in the case of my friends whose grandparents made it out of 1930s Europe, they are lucky that the lack of political will here didn’t doom them. For the refugees from Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, luck and political will in some other country are also the difference between death and a life that is a happy accident. The luck of the waves hitting this way and not that way; the political will of a German chancellor who may remember life under authoritarianism.
Be wary of people who put on a wise face and point to bureaucratic bottlenecks or congressional gridlock or election seasons or refugee quotas as a reason for saying the United States can’t take in more refugees. Be careful of people who say this is Europe’s problem, or the Middle East’s problem — anyone’s problem but ours. They are the people who stand in the way of luck, of life-saving luck, who want you to think that a piece of paper is the adequate riposte to stupid, avoidable death — and to your conscience.
Taking in refugees is an expressly political act, and it is one that can often be done with executive action. When American presidents have wanted to, they have pushed all those bottlenecks aside to allow in tens of thousands of Cubans, Hungarians, Vietnamese, Koreans, Nicaraguans, Bosnians, and many, many others. When America wants to, it has opened its doors to tens of thousands of refugees — people like me who had the unhappy luck to be born in a place gone bad — and absorbed them effortlessly. That is what America does, sparingly but well.
In fact, you are likely the descendant of one of them yourself: people fleeing a potato famine or political unrest in 19th-century Europe, pogroms in the Russian empire, war in Asia, or genocide in Africa. In fact, you, like me, are the descendant of something far less grave than what Syrians are fleeing today. Our politicians crow about how America is the best country in the history of the world, but if Germany can learn from its history and find a way to suddenly throw open its borders and literally sing refugees a welcome, why can’t we?
If Obama has a bucket list, why isn’t this on it?
Twenty-five years ago, I was 7 years old. I got on a plane in Moscow and landed at Dulles International Airport, where my parents filled out refugee cards that we have kept to this day. They may have waited in lines in Moscow and filled out paperwork, but they did not have to pay smugglers, they did not have to get in an inflatable dinghy, they did not have to sleep on the floors of train stations, or walk hundreds of miles toward a new and safer life. They got on a nice, clean plane, and, within 10 or so hours, they were in America, where they have become two of the most American Americans I have ever met. They work hard, pay their taxes, and appreciate this country in a way that many native-born Americans just cannot fathom — simply because they know that their life could have had an alternative path.
My parents, my sister, and me, we find a certain heady, surreal happiness here because we know that this life we have here — it is all a happy accident, and a dream. And yet it is not an accident. Political forces in America changed our reality, as they have for many other refugees. Where are those forces now?
Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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