When people think about the Holocaust and Jewish refugees during WWII, they rarely think about Shanghai. For a long time, I didn’t even know Shanghai was open to Jewish refugees at that time. Recently, I watched the documentary Survival in Shanghai. That documentary featured many Holocaust survivors who told of their escape to Shanghai. When I watched it, I couldn't help but think of the current Syrian refugee crisis, and how my country, the U.S., doesn’t allow many Syrian refugees to cross our borders. Like Shanghai did more than 80 years ago, the U.S. should help those people in need, even if we do have problems of our own.
The Holocaust was one of the most horrific and notable genocides in history. It began when Adolf Hitler started to persecute Jews as a scapegoat for Germany’s financial problems. That persecution became widespread in 1933 when he rose to power in Nazi Germany. Jewish homes and businesses were smashed, and synagogues were burned. Many Jewish people were put in concentration camps, and were then killed in numerous ways, including starvation, gas chambers, and overwork. As a result, over 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. As Jews tried to flee from Germany, they had no place to go, for not many countries wanted to rouse Germany. However, He Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat, issued Chinese visas to Jewish immigrants. The exact number of visas he issued is unknown, but he gave out twelve hundred over the first three months of his position, so the number is believed to be in tens of thousands.
One must realize during that time, China had its own hardships to deal with. The Japanese, allied with the Germans in WWII, were occupying much of China, including Shanghai. Despite their own mistreatment, the Chinese pushed their misfortunes and grievances away in order to help others. They sacrificed money and time to help refugees settle in to their new homes. The Chinese opened their arms, and gave their kindness and food, even when they barely had enough food for their own families.
“What impressed me most was the welcome we received,” said Jared Cohen, one of the Holocaust survivors. “...they accepted us, they were happy with us, and we were respected.”
Willa Sassoon, another refugee, recalled her friendly neighbors, who invited her to their home every day to play with their daughter after school. “They more or less adopted me,” she said.
Today, Syria is in the middle of a civil war. 13 million Syrians have lost their homes, and need a safe shelter. Since 2015, 18,000 Syrians received US visa. However, in 2017, the US president, Donald Trump, imposed a travel ban on six Muslim countries, including Syria. He said terrorists may be hidden in a crowd of Muslim immigrants. That ban stopped the flow of Muslim immigrants of many ethnicities.
America, as a developed country, has more resources than most other countries, and should take the responsibilities to help others in need. Many Americans believe Syrians would commit crime, and would be a bad appendage to our society. However, that is not true. After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, ordinary people just like you and me, lost their homes overnight. Hardworking adults and innocent kids were placed in refugee camps. Men and women who could bring benefit to our society are refused by the US government a chance to rebuild their lives. A study on Syrian immigrants by the Washington Post shows that Syrian immigrants have been a “highly entrepreneurial group.” 11% of Syrian immigrants in the US are entrepreneurs, compared to 3% of the people born in the US. Also, according to the Center for American Progress, all immigrants in the US for less than ten years have an average annual income of $30,000, while recent Syrian immigrants earn average wages of $43,000 a year.
One of the biggest fears Americans have about Syrian immigrants is terrorism. What if a terrorist sneaks into the US by pretending to be an immigrant? According to the Nation Institute and Center for Investigative Reporting, there have been about 90 deaths caused by Islamist terrorists in the US, from 2008-2016. That may be a lot, but in only 2016, there have been 37,461 deaths caused by cars in the US. Does that mean we should be afraid of cars, and ban them? No, we should use precautions to make our roads safer, educate drivers, and enforce driving laws. Similarly, instead of cutting off the flow of immigrants, we should enhance border control, intelligence work, and law enforcement to minimize terrorist attacks. In fact, even with the travel ban, terrorists may still come into our country illegally, so blocking immigrants is not an effective strategy.
I live in an active Jewish community called Scarsdale, New York. At school, during the holidays, many people go around saying “Happy Hanukkah” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Many of my friends are Jewish, and they are so nice, dedicated to study, and kindhearted. I hate to imagine what would have happened to them had they been living in Nazi Germany. I would have definitely helped them, even if it meant endangering myself. To put them up for mistreatment and choose not to help would have made me hate myself for the rest of my life. The Jewish during the Holocaust and the Syrians today could be your neighbors, classmates or friends. They are just ordinary people like you and me.
In summary, Americans should allow Syrian immigrants into our borders, like the people of Shanghai did for the Jews. We should look past stereotypes and fear of terrorism, and lend helping hands to less fortunate people. If the people of Shanghai were able to support Jewish immigrants on their meager resources, Americans should do so too.
William Rubel says
Thank you for this piece. The father of my best college friend escaped the Nazis to Shanghai having started his journey from Vienna. As you know, we at Stone Soup are working on a special Stone Soup issue devoted to writing and art by war refugees. One of our purposes is to help people remember that we are one human family. It is just chance where we are born. Imagine if one were born anyplace that is overcome by conflict and war where people are out to kill you. Imagine you have had to leave your house or apartment, your city is in ruins, there are dead people on the streets. No place is safe. Imagine how you’d feel to find that no country in the world will take you in: you, a ten-year-old with your life ahead of you.
John Donne, a British poet writing in the early 1600s wrote a poem with a verse that talks about what you are writing about–empathy. It can be easier to read older English aloud than to read silently, as many words are spelled phonetically. Reading the words aloud helps them make sense. This text applies to refugees and also, as you will see, to climate change.
John Donne wrote:
“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesser, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manner of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”