Welcome refugees

Members of the student council of my kids' former high school pose with articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule Bad Homburg
Members of the student council of my kids’ former high school pose with articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule Bad Homburg

More than 3 years after moving back to the United States, some things still make me feel like I’ve landed on the wrong planet. One is the current discussion surrounding immigration, both legal and illegal. It’s nothing new, but it never ceases to amaze me how xenophobic this nation of immigrants can be.

The latest wrinkle concerns Syrian refugees. President Obama has committed to taking in 10,000 of them in the coming year – about one for every 32,000 Americans. Republicans are up in arms. Unperturbed by the lack of any supporting evidence, they have determined that Syrians fleeing the Islamic State are a threat to national security. Thirty of fifty governors say they will obstruct efforts to relocate any of them to their states.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Article 14 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Nearly 70 years later, it is a German woman, Angela Merkel, who has emerged as the defender of human rights law. Sometime in the next few days, the number of migrants reaching Germany since the beginning of 2015 will reach 1 million. That’s one migrant for every 82 German residents. Many of them are asylum seekers from Syria. Those granted political asylum will be able to bring their families to join them in Europe, so the total number being resettled could grow exponentially.

Hoping to get some perspective on things, I asked friends and former neighbors in Germany about their view of the situation and their experience so far with the refugee crisis. Since fear is the driving force behind so much of the political rhetoric in the United States, I asked my German friends about their fears:


N is for Nächstenliebe


November 11th is St. Martin’s Day. Tomorrow evening in Germany, as it gets dark, children carrying paper lanterns they’ve made at home or in Kindergarten will gather with their parents to sing songs and walk in a procession – perhaps led by a figure on horseback. Afterwards, they’ll warm themselves around a bonfire.


The bonfire and lanterns surely relate to other ancient traditions that mark the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of the dark winter throughout northern Europe. But the children’s songs specifically commemorate Saint Martin, a Roman soldier who distinguished himself in the 4th Century AD. Riding on his horse, Martin is said to have come upon a beggar, shivering in the cold. Having nothing else to offer, he cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave one half to the beggar.

It’s a powerful story for teaching young children about Nächstenliebe. The Bible says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Nächstenliebe is a compound noun that packs that idea into a single word, meaning love for one‘s neighbor or, literally, love for the next guy.

These days, the word Nächstenliebe figures prominently in public discourse. The number one topic, naturally, is the Flüchtlingskrise – the refugee crisis. Germany is committed to accepting 800,000 asylum seekers – a number that corresponds to 1% of the country’s population. The construction of temporary housing began long ago, but the sheer flood of migrants has overwhelmed the original plans. Now, towns and cities all over Germany are struggling to erect temporary shelters that can withstand the winter cold.