My Turn: Let mercy and hope triumph

Our snowfall this week has Juneau looking a bit more like Christmas. In light of some of the headlines recently, it would do us good to think more about the reason we celebrate that holiday.

The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus, and in the seventh verse of that chapter, Luke says that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, the Christian savior was a refugee.

In recent days, I’ve read statements from governors across the United States who say they don’t want Syrian refugees in their states. After a terrorist attack killed 129 Parisians, Americans are concerned that the United States might unwittingly welcome terrorists among the refugees who need help.

“Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder wrote, “but our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”

I’ve heard similar statements from Alaskans, politicians and otherwise.

“We need to take care of ourselves first,” an acquaintance in Kodiak told me.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican representing the Mat-Su Borough in the Alaska Senate, was the first to send an email that popped up in my box.

“The protection of Alaskans and Americans should take precedence over refugee resettlement,” he wrote in part. “Protecting our citizens should be our primary and only concern on this issue.”

Reading his words, I couldn’t help but think of my family’s history. Many of my ancestors came to the United States in the 1850s, in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine and the failed revolutions of 1848.

From the start of 1851 to the end of 1855, more than 1 million people arrived in the United States from Ireland and Germany alone, making up three-quarters of all immigrants during that period, according to U.S. Census figures. This immigration came when the United States (according to the 1850 census) had just over 23 million people.

If the United States were to accept a proportionally sized number of immigrants today, we’d have to allow 12.8 million people into the country.

That isn’t going to happen.

In September, President Obama said the United States would prepare to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next fiscal year, about one-seventh of the figure America already accepts annually.

These refugees will be screened and thoroughly vetted, just as they’ve always been.

Since 1980, when the existing U.S. refugee settlement program began, no refugee has committed an act of terrorism in the United States. Since Sept. 11, 2001, America has accepted 784,000 refugees. Exactly three have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. Only a single one of those involved a threat in the United States.

It’s natural to be afraid of what might happen. We worry about that one terrorist because he might affect us or our families. We forget about the other 783,999 people who are living happily in the United States. We forget about the families that have been saved because they found an inn, not a manger.

We overlook what might have happened if those people had been left behind.

In January 1939, the Gallup American Institute of Public Opinion commissioned a poll that asked whether the United States should admit 10,000 refugee children from Germany, most of them Jewish.

Sixty-one percent of those polled said the United States should not.

Later that year, a ship called the SS St. Louis left Germany, packed with Jewish refugees. The St. Louis stopped in Cuba, the United States and Canada, but each country turned those refugees away. They returned to Europe, where more than one-quarter of the ship’s 908 passengers subsequently died in the Holocaust.

For Americans, and especially Alaskans, to turn refugees away is to let fear trump fact. In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, 58 percent of Alaskans came from somewhere else. We weren’t born here; we immigrated to this state because it offers something better. Eight percent of us came from outside the United States, and that proportion is rising every year.

A few weeks ago, this newspaper ran an editorial written by its owners. That editorial, which was not backed by the members of this newspaper’s editorial board, castigated the Obama administration’s plans for Syrian refugees. It used language that some have since found racist.

At the time, I opposed the editorial, and I wish I had spoken up more loudly and clearly.

The goal of terrorism is to spread fear that forces you to take actions you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Helene Muyal-Leiris was one of the 89 people killed in the Bataclan concert hall on Friday. Her husband, Antoine Leiris, wrote an open letter following her death. “I saw her this morning. She was just as beautiful as she was when she left home Friday evening, as beautiful as when I fell madly in love with her more than 12 years ago,” he says.

He then turns his attention to the terrorists that attacked the Bataclan. He says he will not give them the gift of hating them.

“Responding to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what you are,” he wrote. When he passes on, “I know that she will join us every day and that we will find each other again in a paradise of free souls, which you will never have access to.”

He concludes by saying that he will raise their 1 1/2-year-old son “happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred, either.”

Brooks is News Editor for the Juneau Empire and a member of its editorial board. Write to him at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com

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