Last week, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe came home in a visceral, unexpected way to many Americans. The widely circulated photo of a dead toddler lying facedown on a Turkish beach, having been lost at sea from a too-small boat trafficking too many refugees, brought this crisis into homes throughout the world.
His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was 3 years old.
He was wearing a red T-shirt, blue shorts and black Velcro sneakers. He dressed the same way many children are this time of year, as they set off to their first day of school. Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, also lost his 5-year-old son, Ghalib, and his wife, Rehanna, when their boat capsized while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos.
Mr. Kurdi, who was leading his family from the horrors now going on in Syria en route to Canada, told the BBC last week, “My children were the most beautiful children in the world. Is there anybody in the world for whom their child is not the most precious thing?”
I thought of two people when I first saw that photo. The first is my wife’s grandmother, Josie, whose parents brought her siblings onto a boat to flee Syria, the same age and younger than Aylan. Josie was born and raised in the U.S., had six children, now has eight grandchildren and last year celebrated the birth of her first great-grandchild, thanks to a welcoming and compassionate United States.
The second is that great-grandchild, my daughter, who is now 13 months old. My daughter and Josie, both Syrian-Americans, are separated by 92 years but linked by the courageous decision of Josie’s parents, my daughter’s great-great-grandparents, to board that boat and leave Syria.
What also separates them, though, is politics.
The leading Republican presidential candidate is getting an unexpected amount of attention, in part, because of his vile rhetoric toward immigrants to this country. Without a doubt, many of his supporters themselves are descendants of courageous immigrants who fled political and economic strife, just like Josie’s parents.
But Americans are better than this shallow rhetoric reveals.
Last month was the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, a constant theme of the litany of anniversary events was to thank the people of the United States, and the world, for their outpouring of money, housing and other desperately needed resources in the wake of Katrina.
The generosity of the world was so great that we had a steady stream of volunteers gutting homes, individuals and churches housing evacuees throughout the country, and we even have the Xavier University pharmacy program housed in a new building funded by the oil-rich Middle East nation of Qatar.
History also tells of many moments when the American people stood up for the displaced people of the world.
In 1914, a mining engineer from California named Herbert Hoover went to Europe during the outbreak of World War I and cobbled together government grants and private funds, including his own, to create the Commission for the Relief of Belgium. The commission saved the people of Belgium from starving to death due to the country being trapped between the warring nations of Europe.
We are, as a nation, a generous people. But we also are a nation that is stuck in low gear during this crisis in Europe, with a considerable amount of its citizens willing to support the slandering of immigrants by political aspirants.
Give to charities to support these refugees in this darkest of hours, pray for them, or volunteer. Finally, vote for candidates with wisdom, a sense of history, and a willingness to not just talk tough, but to lead with compassion.
Let’s make America great again, but let’s not forget what, and who, made America great in the first place.
Ramsey Green, a real estate developer and consultant, is adjunct professor of Homeland Security Studies at Tulane University.