A Lesson from Cicero: Aiding Refugees in the Modern World

Today we had an immigration attorney fly in from Sicily to talk to us about his work. It was a really inspiring lecture and I thought it might be a good time to reflect on what he had to say.

First of all, let me make the comment that I don’t have any satisfying solution on how to solve the immigration crisis. Although I feel a deep obligation to help those who are in need, I also understand people’s hesitation. With the political climate of today’s world it is understandable why people would want to keep that which they don’t understand away. With stories such as Otto Warmbier’s death and the continuous terrorist attacks that seem to be omnipresent in the news, fear is a reasonable response.

Today, at the beginning of the lecture, our lecturer began with a short video clip of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek sanctuary in Sicily. Many refugees travel to Syria and then take a boat to Italy. The journey over is treacherous and many times small boats are overloaded with scores of people who are desperate to escape the circumstance of their past. One of the important things to realize is that these people don’t simply chose to leave their home. More often than not, they leave because it is a matter of life or death. They leave to preserve their own lives and that of their family. So, when considering our own fear, perhaps we should also consider the fear of those who are much worse of than ourselves. Individuals who fear prosecution, discrimination, and sometimes even death.

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Yesterday, we had the opportunity to talk to a refugee from Nigeria. His English was excellent so it was a great opportunity to connect. When entering the room something was very apparent about our speaker, Kingsley. He was from Nigeria and yet he was white. His African features were prominent and yet his skin was pale and his eyes were a sky blue color. Kingsley is albino. His story began in school were he was mocked for being different. He was feared by pregnant women who thought that he would somehow turn their unborn children into albinos. His girlfriend’s family refused to allow their daughter’s hand in marriage to someone suffering from albinism. Although these all seem humiliating rather than life threatening over time the consequences of his illness became an endangerment to his life. Some considered his white skin to be a sort of talisman and witchdoctors threatened to hack off his arms to use them for their “practice.” Out of fear, Kingsley left to preserve his own life. His story was startling because it isn’t an uncommon story. Luckily, Italy’s immigration policy is much more welcoming than our in the states, and Kingsley is now a very nationalistic Italian who works towards helping those who are escaping prosecution much like he was ten years ago.

In class we discussed a letter from Cicero. Although he was talking to the senate, his message was clearly for the emperor of the time Julius Caesar. His message was this: to do not what was popular, but to do what future generations would look back upon fondly. I’ve written in a previous post that many look back on The Holocaust with regret, but did this have to be the case? If we could have intervened earlier, could lives have been saved? The reason I ask this is because at the time fear of entering another world war prevented us from responding. In retrospect, I’m sure many would have chosen to enter the war earlier. What we have going on now is surely one of the world’s most tragic crimes against humanity, and yet it is easy to turn a blind eye to the suffering that is taking place. Perhaps we need to head Cicero’s warning and instead of doing what is popular, do what is right. Will we look back in fifty years and regret our lack of response? Will our great grandchildren look back upon “Trumps” wall with the same disdain that we have of the Berlin Wall? Walls are built…. but they all come down eventually. I’m not saying not to keep our guard up. In this day in age it is necessary to proceed with caution, but I also think that it is paramount to proceed with trust, sympathy, and compassion.

One thing that a lot of us don’t want to admit is that we are very privileged in the States. Even those of us who struggle, are for the most part taken care of. Although I realize that there is much suffering in the United States, I feel that the path out of poverty and prosecution is a much simpler one than it is for much of the world. When I was in Africa, I was surprised by how little some had. We are used to spending hours in front of tv screens and fancy laptops. It is commonplace for us to whip out our I-phones to look up movie times or a restaurant recommendation. The truth is, only 5% of the world’s population is able to live like this. Am I condemning our use of this priviledge? Of course not. I am just as responsible for enjoying Netflix, Facebook, and other luxuries. The problem is when people don’t take into consideration that we, for the most part, are lucky. Our democratic system operates much better than most and provides us with securities that others aren’t afforded.

Something we should all take into consideration is whether someone should suffer simply because of where they were born? After thinking about this long and hard get back to me. Let me know your thoughts. I am always open to discussion and would love to hear other’s opinions.

I’ll leave you with one last, sort of long thought….

Look back on the words of Emma Lazarus. Living during the late nineteenth Century, Lazarus was present for the flood of European immigrants which made our nation the “Melting Pot” we know it as today. Her most famous work is entitled “The New Colossus,” and is inscribed into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The most impactful lines are these:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Immigration during the late 1800’s was not simple. Immigrants faced many challenges which they face today, and when we remember this, we ought to remember what our nation stands for, and what we stand for as one human race. It is also worth remembering that many people, including myself, are descendants of immigrants. My grandparents are German and Irish, and my boyfriend’s grandparents fled Lithuania after the 1905 uprisings in St. Petersburg.
Let us not so quickly forget our own past.

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