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Kunin: Refusing Syrian Refugees

Toby Talbot
The woman who became the first female governor of Vermont in 1984 arrived in America in 1940 by boat. She and her family were fleeing Nazi Europe.

It was a different time – June 10, 1940 – when my widowed mother and I, and my brother, walked down the plank of the S.S. Manhattan onto the New York City pier, lined with suitcases and trunks that held the worldly possessions of families fleeing Nazi Europe. 

We were lucky. We had possessions, unlike today's Syrian refugees, many of whom are traveling by foot, some carrying their babies in their arms and their clothes on their backs, and perhaps a blanket to protect them from the cold rain.

We were Swiss and Jewish. Being Swiss helped; being Jewish did not, as my mother feared Hitler would cross the Alps into Switzerland, a country surrounded by Nazis. I was too young to understand why my mother took me along to the American consulate day after day. After she produced bank statements that proved we would not be a financial burden to the United States, she was given the precious visa. Taking the train ride from Zurich to Genoa, and boarding our overcrowded ship was an adventure as seen through my 6-year-old eyes. I knew no fear, unlike the wide eyed children of Syrian refugees today, whose faces beg for help.

We arrived a year after the ship the St. Louis, which had left Germany with 900 Jews aboard and was not allowed to land in Havana or New York. The ship was forced to return where 250 died in concentration camps.

Again, we were the lucky ones. Now we know many more refugees could have been saved if the State Department hadn’t been riddled with anti-Semitism. Today, the country is infected with a fear of Syrian refugees, with 31 governors urging us to “pause” or prohibit them from landing on our shores.

If I were still governor of Vermont, I would want to assure Vermonters that the two-year screening and vetting process will keep terrorists out of the country. But that does not mean that every Syrian should be punished because of his or her religion.

This country took my family in during war time. It was a different time. But America is not a different country. America provides refuge, America takes risks and America is generous. Each time we've flung our doors open – for the Irish, the Italians, the Latin-Amerians, the Asians – our country has been enriched.

Syrian immigrants are likely to be educated and become hard working citizens. Leaving one’s homeland takes courage, ambition, and optimism – all qualities characteristic of immigrants. When we close our doors on Syrian refugees we may not be sending them to death camps, but by turning Syrians away, we may be dooming them and their children to a violent death, or to the life of the eternal wanderer without without food, shelter, or a homeland. America is better than that.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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