OSWEGO — A recent change in federal policy could have real ramifications for the people of Oswego County and if the United States truly wants to live up to our boast as the greatest country in the world, this would be a perfect opportunity to start acting like it.
First, some information: Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States began accepting refugees under an annual ceiling for the number of people who could be resettled here. From a 1980 cap of 231,700 refugees, America embarrassingly let that number drop to 80,000 under President Bill Clinton, then down to 30,000 in 2019. On May 5, 2021, President Joe Biden raised the ceiling back to 62,500 for the next year and while it’s impossible to actually resettle that many people in the given time frame, it’s a step in the right direction to regaining an even moral footing with the rest of the developed world.
Let’s be specific who we’re talking about: according to the 1951 United Nations High Council on Refugees, a refugee is defined as “someone unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
But why let some stuffy bureaucrat define the refugee experience? Let’s hear from 14-year-old Achmed, whose family was bombed out of their Syrian home.
"Being scared was a permanent state of mind. I was always scared," Achmed told humanitarian group Save The Children. "When I went to bed, I always wondered if I would wake up the next morning."
His sister, 10-year-old Hala, lost her glasses while walking to what they were told was a refugee camp.
"Everything is already strange, but now it is also blurry," she said. "It is very scary not to be able to see clearly."
Anyone who is a parent, aunt, uncle or just a human being with a working pulse will be moved by these stories. The real tragedy is that they are endless and so they become faceless. If we could hook up human suffering to a generator, the planet’s energy woes would be solved because it seems everywhere one looks on a map is at war and on fire. Khrushchev said as much in an October 1963 cable to President John Kennedy: such is the logic of war, and war only ends when it has rolled through cities and villages everywhere sowing death and destruction.
We’ll never stop people from killing each other. The disease has been inside us since the first man-ape bonked another man-ape with a rock in a dispute over some berries. But maybe you’ve heard the parable of the starfish? After a high tide covered the beach with stranded starfish, a little boy was tossing them back in the water. When told his effort wouldn’t matter because he could never save them all, his response while picking up yet another suffering creature: “It matters to this one.”
If a refugee can make it to America from a battle-scarred homeland, one might be tempted to think that’s the happy end of the story. It may trouble you to know resettled refugees are given $1,025 and 90 days of federally funded casework services, and that’s the end of the guaranteed federal support. At that point, support for fresh-off-the-plane refugees falls on the usual suspects: churches and charities. Interfaith Works in Syracuse does heroic work helping new Americans connect with education, employment, banking and other essentials of daily life. The organization is trying to rebuild their capacity as the Biden order raising the refugee ceiling will take some time to implement, and they’re rallying local enthusiasm for what should be a fundamental responsibility in this year of our Lord 2021: to help the stranger, comfort the afflicted and share our infinite national abundance with people coming here to escape horrors most of us will be fortunate enough to never know.
In Oswego County, a grassroots, dedicated group of volunteers known as Oswego Welcomes New Americans (OWNA) is gearing up for action if we’re lucky enough to be selected as a refugee resettlement area. There’s been no official word on when, or even if this will happen, but OWNA members aren’t waiting around to find out because building a welcoming community is its own reward. To get involved, find them online: Facebook.com/OswegoWelcomesNewAmericans
This week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., highlighted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 order that authorized the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter to accept 982 mostly Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi genocide. At the time, it was a controversial decision. Now we look back on that decision, that facility and that history as one of the Oswego’s proudest moments.
How will our grandchildren remember us?
Seth Wallace is the managing editor of The Palladium-Times.