Demagoguery and xenophobia in high places are reaching a feverish pitch not witnessed in America since the McCarthy era. What we are experiencing in this election cycle is the politics of fear, which employs scapegoating in order to garner popular support for those seeking to be the leader of the free world. It is morally repugnant and politically very dangerous. In a time of stagnant economy and international terrorism, immigrants and refugees have become the prime targets. Singled out among the latter are those fleeing the extraordinarily brutal civil war in Syria.
This conflict, which has created a hell on earth, has displaced one half of the country’s population, four million of whom have fled their borders, escaping bombings, gassing, torture and persecution. Most of the violence has been generated by the government of Bashar Assad. The surrounding countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon have taken in millions of these refugees. As untold thousands flee for their lives to Europe, with conspicuous numbers dying along the way, Germany has pledged to resettle a million Syrians. The United States, which has taken in fewer than 2,000, has committed itself to accept 10,000 endangered Syrians, a paltry number given the humanitarian need and the vaunted narrative of the United States as a haven for the persecuted. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
It was discovered that in the recent assault on Paris by ISIS operatives, one was an asylum seeker from Syria. This single incident has been the occasion for those who would be president to attack the administration’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrians, and motivated some to call for the complete barring of Muslims from the country, singling out those fleeing the Syria, in particular. My own governor, Christopher Christie, in order to boost his failing campaign for the Republican nomination, declared that he would not have any Syrians resettled in New Jersey (conveniently forgetting that refugee resettlement is a responsibility of the federal government and not the states.) To inflate his bravado and clarify his position, Christie stated that we should go as far as to bar “orphans under five years old” from entering the United States.
In defiance of this edict calumniating those who are arguably the planet’s most dispossessed, and in greatest need of a safe haven, the Bergen Society held a party!
This party had roots reaching back eleven years when the Society spearheaded a movement to provide a comprehensive range of humanitarian services for political asylum seekers in our area. The Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition is now compromised of eight local congregations and a human rights organization giving support to asylum seekers in nearby detention centers. As it turns out, two of our current clients are Syrian families.
One – a husband, wife and four children – has been in our program for four years. The other client is a Syrian businessman whose had to leave behind his wife and three children as he fled for his life. His family received derivative asylum, and three months ago, after much anxiety, they arrived in the United States, and the war-torn family was reunited. A member of our board found a benefactor who is paying the first four months rent for the family in Montclair, New Jersey. In short, as our governor was exploiting the fear of Syrians to boost his sagging campaign, we were settling a Syrian family in the Garden State.
To drive the point home, on January 16th, the Bergen Society hosted a potluck dinner with our two Syrian families as the guests of honor. Also present were the Coalition’s two other clients: a young man from Eritrea, and our newest client, a young man from Yemen. To our surprise, more than 80 people showed up at the dinner with prepared food in hand. No doubt, the large turnout resulted from a desire to express solidarity with those who are most imperiled. It was a simple, but, in a sense, profound, and certainly very timely, act of moral witness of which we can all be proud.