Refugees escaping dangerous countries are traditionally welcomed to U.S. shores. Jewish refugees came through Ellis Island circa 1910 to escape Russia. Cuban refugees poured into Florida in 1959. They left family and possessions to escape Castro’s communism.
The U.S. welcomed the “Lost Boys of Somalia” and other victims of rape and torture in the 90s. Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services and other humanitarian organizations helped these people transition to American life. The health department treated many refugees in local clinics.
As Health Department Director then, I took great satisfaction in our providing health care to these victims. I remember seeing them walking our streets or working in Publix as baggers. Seeing them blend into our population filled me with pride. After all, we are Americans and we cherish the opportunity to help those less fortunate.
The U.S. also has a darker side when dealing with refugees. The German ship St. Louis carried 1,400 Jewish families from Nazi Germany in 1939. Arrangements had been made for their emigration to Cuba. Politics and infighting prevailed and after weeks of haggling, they were forced to leave. They came to the U.S. They were refused again and sent back to Europe. Most would die in Nazi concentration camps.
Elian Gonzalez and his Cuban mother tried to flee to Miami in 1999. She had left her husband and wanted a better life for Elian. She drowned in this attempt.
Elian survived and was welcomed into the Miami Cuban community.
His father still living in Cuba made claims on the boy and the US complied. Elian went back to Cuba. Cuban Americans were incensed and to this day make their statement at the polls. The iconic photograph showing machine gun-toting US agents grabbing Elian from a closet remains seared in the minds of the Miami community.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services has served the Tampa Bay Area for decades. Along with their numerous services, they have received grants to accommodate displaced populations. I cannot remember an outcry about these efforts.
Of course, President Obama was little known and the “Anti-Obama Crowd” didn’t exist. A federal decision to enlist GCJFS to cooperate with the current refugee crisis created fodder for “Obama detractors.”
Sadly, an outcry to reject the children has surfaced in Pasco County. Some citizens and politicians oppose helping 16 refugee children.
There is no cost to house these children, who will be temporary residents. There are families who have volunteered to help them as they work their way through the court system. Also, the risks their parents took to get their children to the United States cannot be overlooked. Families preferred to give their children to strangers than to expose them to any more of the violence that plagues their countries.
A proper discussion would address how to provide for and welcome these children and how to reunite them with their families. What a black eye for Pasco if a small group of mean-spirited citizens and elected officials block assistance for these children.
Marc Yacht is a semi-retired physician living in Hudson, Fla. Column courtesy of Context Florida.