“We must think of Sousa Mendes’s heroism in today’s context,” Jorge Helft, a Holocaust survivor who as a French boy received one of Sousa Mendes’s visas, told me. “I have dinners in Paris where people start saying we have to kick all these people out, there are dangerous people among them.” He paused and added, “I remember being on a ship to New York and hearing that some Americans didn’t want to let us in because there were Nazi spies among us.
“Yes, there might have been Nazi spies, but a tiny minority,” he said, just as there might be spies among Syrian refugees today, but again a tiny minority. “Ninety-five percent or more of these people are decent, and they are fleeing from death. So let’s not forget them.”
It’s easy to say you would. Of course you would! You aren’t a monster. But would you really? And what are you willing to risk to help refugees now? I think this is something we need to consider carefully, and we need to think about it in light of the similarities between what is going on in the US today to what happened in Germany as the Nazis were rising to power. It’s easy to think you’d stand up for others, and it’s easy to think that would never happen here, but I fear that when you are in the thick of it, without the benefit of perfect hindsight, you might not recognize just how bad and how dangerous things are until it’s too late.
And as a side note, did you know that Anne Frank was also a refugee? Her father, Otto Frank, tried to obtain US visas for his family. His requests were denied–despite having powerful people working to help him from within the US–largely because Americans feared that Jewish refugees were actually Nazi spies.
Refugees are fleeing terrible circumstances. They don’t just decide on a whim to pull up stakes and disrupt their entire lives so they can start over again, with nothing, at the other end of the world. It’s a long, complicated, and I can only assume exhausting process. Refugees are well vetted. They are not spies, except in some people’s fever dreams. They deserve our aid and compassion, period.