I have been watching with horror and anticipation the drama that has been unfolding with the refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking refuge in Europe. I could not fathom what it would have been like for a Hungarian law enforcement officer to have to push people away from the trains that would take them to Germany. I was relieved to hear that Germany and Austria agreed to take the refugees and that Hungary provided buses. However, these are not the only migrants seeking relief. A week or so ago there were reports of people seeking to get to England from France by walking through the Chunnel that runs between the two countries. Then of course, there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States, whom Donald Trump callously stereotypes as thugs and rapist, but who like their European counterparts are simply seeking security, safety and a place to live in peace. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has challenged her European counterparts to help refugees in the right thing to do. I wish her well.
As I read and watched the news of this unfolding crisis, I was reminded of something I would say to the kids I worked with in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, when they would contemplate getting involved in the drug trade or seek revenge for a perceived hurt. I used to say: “You know, what goes around comes around.” In other words, what you do today will consequences down the road, and will come back to you.
Yes – the violence is the reason refugees are fleeing Syria and other countries. However, the violence is the result of actions taken 15, 20, even 50 years ago that have led to a divided and war torn area of the world. The U.S. and European coalition constructed to attack and destabilize Saddam Hussein has caused that area of the world to plunge into utter chaos. Western addiction to oil made that region an “area of interest” to attack and “defend.” Moreover, our blind and total support of Israel has made that nation a threat and destabilizing force for all in the region. Now Saddam was a brutal ruler, and rulers like Assad in Syria, and the Ayatollah in Iran have been brutal. Israel has a right to its own security and ISIS is a legitimate threat. So I don’t want to oversimplify things. Yet, if one were to step back, they could see that the events following World War II in that region of the world and subsequent decisions by Western nations to intervene in those countries and have led to refugees flowing into Europe.
Likewise, in the United States a similar process is at work. In the 1950’s and 1960’s large fruit companies like United Fruit (now Chiquita) propped up puppet governments in exchange for control of the productive farm land, even when it displaced millions of people from their homes. In the 1980’s the CIA waged a covert war against governments in several Central and South American countries in the “fight against Communism.” These efforts left many countries like Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua impoverished and devastated. Then President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allowed U.S. companies to operate there while paying subsistence wages, and avoiding safety and environmental regulations that existed in the U.S. However, while businesses and markets could flow freely between countries, no such arrangement was made for labor, so workers in the north and south ended up being impoverished and manipulated. Is it any wonder that people would risk their lives to come north just to survive?
Again, I don’t want to oversimplify. Obviously there are numerous other factors that come into play. However, beefing up the border patrol and building a wall simply avoids the issue. Choices that the U.S. leaders and companies made have come back to us. What goes around comes around.
One might be willing to forgive some bad decisions that looked good at the time but turned sour, if we were willing to learn from our mistakes. Instead our leaders build their wall, and blame the victims for doing what any sane person would do in order to survive and provide for their families.
What is so troubling about statements made by would be political leaders like Donald Trump or European leaders like England’s David Cameron seeking to block the migrants from coming across the border, is that so many regular citizens agree with them. Let us imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or a young Honduran man seeking to enter the United States, and honestly ask ourselves: would we do anything different?
One of the American classic stories is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family from Oklahoma seeking to go to California to escape the Dust Bowl and poverty, in search of opportunities to start a new life. Like the refugees, like undocumented immigrants, they were vilified and turned away, blamed for their own misery. Steinbeck wrote that story to hold the mirror up to every American and ask – would any of us do any different?
I have no simple solutions to migration crises around the world, but it seems that violence, manipulation, overthrowing rulers not to our liking, and then putting up fences and walls to keep the victims of actions out is not addressing the deeper problems. Perhaps our leaders need to read history and read Steinbeck, and then ask as Angela Merkel is trying to do – What is the right thing to do in the moment of crisis? However beyond that they also must consider what must we do differently to avert these crises all together. Otherwise we will continue to experience (without getting the lesson) that what goes around comes around.