By Gaby Joseph || Contributing Writer

When my grandfather was eight years old, he, his mother, and his sister voyaged on the S.S. Saint Louis from Germany to Havana, Cuba. That ship held hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing religious persecution that was spreading rapidly in Europe. But that ship did not unload its passengers in Cuba because the Cuban government was unwilling to let them in. The ship voyaged on to the U.S. and waited off the coast of Florida for the government to grant them entrance. But, President Roosevelt did not hear their pleas and they were turned away, and this time they were sent back to Europe.

For many of the people on that ship, their stories ended shortly thereafter once they arrived back in Europe, where they perished at the hands of the Nazis in death camps. My grandfather managed to escape this fate, eventually being allowed entrance into Cuba and then into the U.S.

Over 60 years ago, the U.S. did not want to take in the boatloads of Jewish refugees seeking safety from religious prosecution, and for that they are complicit in the death of those people. Presently, as we examine the past, we inherently understand and would never deny that our country’s actions were erroneous. We know that we should not have allowed the inhumane, systematic slaughter of millions of innocent people. We know that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. And yet, in the wake of the most recent slew of violence perpetrated by radical extremists, many in our own country are suggesting we close our borders, once again, to another group of refugees: Syrians.

The Economist recently published an article describing that 750,000 refugees have resettled in the United States since 9/11 and not a single one of them have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. This desire to close our doors is founded in fear, not grounded in reality. The Syrian refugees are undoubtedly different than the Jewish ones; they are from a different part of the world, they are escaping different kinds of brutality, and they are coming from the same place that tremendous violence and hatred towards the U.S. and Europe is breeding. But, just as the Jews fled for safety, innocent Syrians are forced to leave their home because of violence and hatred. We cannot allow our fear of extremists to dictate how we treat the innocent civilians. If we do, we will give those innocent people a reason to hate us. 

Because of his eventual immigration into the U.S., my grandfather, along with my grandmother, another Holocaust survivor, were able to grow up, attend university, earn a PhD, serve on the faculty of a large state university for 50 years, and raise a family with ten grandchildren. His grandchildren are motivated by their grandparents’ success and all aspire to achieve half of the accomplishments their grandparents were able to achieve. I know that my grandparents have contributed meaningfully and successfully to American society, along with my parents, aunts and uncles. I’d like to think that my siblings, cousins and I are all on our way to making similar contributions. But none of us would be able to have those opportunities if our grandfather had not been one of the fortunate ones that the U.S. decided to open its doors to all those years ago.

We must not deny more people the opportunity to escape the atrocities that they are facing. We must not deny the U.S. the opportunity to benefit from new citizens. We must examine the mistakes of our past in order to determine the actions of our present.

It is our fundamental obligation as humans to keep the doors of our country open to provide Syrian refugees with both a better home and life. We must not allow our country to be bystanders once again.

HIAS is a Jewish non profit organization that, guided by Jewish values and history, is committed to helping resettle the most vulnerable refugees. Please consider signing their petition to urge the United States Government to take an active role in helping these refugees.

Senior Gaby Joseph is a contributing writer. Her email is gjoseph@fandm.