We need an alternative narrative on refugees

When President Trump explained his reasons for the ban on immigrants from seven largely Muslim nations (which a federal appeals panel recently thwarted), he said: “I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. Don’t want them here.”

We need an alternative narrative. As I said recently in Heidelberg while accepting an award from the government of Germany, most of Germany’s refugees are smart, strong, ambitious, and not in the least inclined toward terrorism. Our support of them now will yield positive returns for Germany in the future. The same is true of the U.S., the country that took me in as a refugee over 75 years ago.

My own life serves as an example. As a child, my family had to flee in fear from the very country that recently presented me with its prestigious Order of Merit. Hitler had come to power less than three months before my birth, gaining strength by finding scapegoats for the troubles of the German people that were caused by World War I and the peace treaty, and from the ensuing inflation and depression. The Nazis blamed the country’s defeat, hunger, and chaos on traitors and Jews, whom they called foreigners despite the fact that they had been in Germany ever since the Romans drove them there centuries ago. My family, which could trace itself back for generations, was unwilling to believe that this land of Goethe and Heine could be governed by a nativist group of criminals: “Surely they can’t mean us,” my family said. But they did.

Reality set in when we were arrested and stripped of almost everything we owned, forced to flee, first to England and then to America. America welcomed us, as it usually does welcome refugees, despite the occasional internal bigot. This rescue and welcome gave us the opportunity to transform ourselves into hard-working patriots.

We worked hard and educated ourselves in our new country.  And, as soon as we could, we renewed our ties with the country that kicked us out.  The Nazis had forced us out of Germany, but they couldn’t force the German out of us. In America, we held on to our roots. We held on to some of the language, especially after we heard our parents speak German when sharing secrets. “Aber nicht vor den Kindern.” Our father taught us Skat, a traditional German card game, and told us about Heidelberg, where he studied before going to the front in World War I. In fact, my brother and I returned to Heidelberg in 1951 to pursue the same medical studies as our father had.

This re-engagement, which brought my past and present into alignment, is the reason for my recent award. In seeking to make the different parts of my life fit, I have engaged actively with both the city of Heidelberg and the city of New York. I have looked for ways to further strengthen the U.S.-Germany relationship. And I have felt perfectly at home in both places, perhaps, as my wife and closest friends would say, just a bit more exuberantly in Germany, like the 18-year-old I was when I found myself in my lost homeland.

Today, there are 65 million refugees among the world’s 7 billion people, less than 1 percent.

My U.S.-German outlook gives me a unique perspective on what is happening in Germany. The country finds itself at the center of a new refugee crisis, and this time Germany is courageously doing what it can to help. There were 60 million people displaced after the World War II, 2.5 percent of the world’s then-prevailing population. Today, there are 65 million refugees among the world’s 7 billion people, less than 1 percent. The proportion makes today’s situation sound better than it is, however. After World War II, most refugees were resettled within a few years. Today, a refugee’s average stay in a camp is over 15 years.

In both eras, refugees (we called ourselves “refs”) remain controversial. Then as now, some people thought of them only as weak, poor, and burdensome. Others thought they were clever tricksters, seeking to rise on the backs of the people hosting them.

My own life shows that, throughout history, the world has in fact made the best of refugees; it has come to use them like an accelerated form of Darwinian natural selection. Faced with the turmoil and xenophobia that is a never-ending part of our flawed psyches and world, only the strongest and smartest, the most resilient, and the hardest workers, are able to re-establish themselves. The philosopher Lin-Manuel Miranda, speaking of Alexander Hamilton, said it well: “Immigrants get the job done.”

Their youth is part of their strength. Over two-thirds are below the age of 33. Germany’s rapidly aging population makes these migrants just the people Germany needs for its future. They are, moreover, ambitious, smart, and anxious to learn.

What we see now as a refugee problem may well become an even greater deluge in the near future as climate change devastates ever more of our planet, and technology enables tyrants to maintain power more cruelly.

We live on a tiny ball spinning through a largely empty space. And if we don’t share this small world that we inhabit, it will be its end.

We live on a tiny ball spinning through a largely empty space. And if we don’t share this small world that we inhabit, it will be its end. Building walls is futile; equally bad, they put the people on each side into prisons, no matter how prettily they are wall-papered.

We in the so-called first world are, with our ferocious energy consumption, deeply implicated in the changes we see today, and the greater ones we will see tomorrow. More and more people will come to us, dragging their young children across the seas and the mountains to come to a place they don’t know a continent away. We should feel deeply honored, but we must live up to it. If we don’t, the liberties they hope we have will be lost to us all.

“Giess Wasser zur Suppe und heiss alle willkommen,” (“Add water to the soup and make everyone welcome,”) is an old German folk saying. Those ancestors well understood that a meal cannot be enjoyed, a peace not maintained, and one’s own not protected without sharing and compromise. It is a bit of German folk wisdom that has survived all imperializing regimes and their detriments.  It should survive today’s dramas as well – in both Germany and the U.S.

An American businessman and philanthropist, Dr. Henry Jarecki was recently awarded the Order of Merit, Officer’s Cross by the government of Germany for his work to improve the city of Heidelberg, enhance U.S.-German relations, and encourage Germany to open its universities to host threatened scholars from around the world. He is Vice Chairman of the Institute of International Education (IIE), Founder of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, and Germany Chairman of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund.