Everybody wants to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but how?
Democrats want to bring in more Syrian refugees and resettle them in U.S. communities. Republicans say refugees pose a security risk. Democrats say they can be fully vetted. Republicans say the process can’t be trusted, and terrorists will get in alongside innocent civilians.
Listening to the back and forth and watching the suffering in Aleppo and elsewhere, “It hit me that children can’t create this risk,” says Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international law at George Washington University. His idea to bridge the political divide is to bring in Syrian children between the ages of three and ten to live with American host families until the violence in their country subsides and a viable peace process is underway.
“This is the season to worry about good deeds and children, and slightly eliminate the shame of Syria,” Etzioni told the Daily Beast. The children would be orphans or children whose parents voluntarily turn them over for temporary shelter in the United States.
The idea grew out of Etzioni’s personal experience as a child in pre-Nazi Germany. He was six years old in 1936 when he was spirited out of the country in the sidecar of a non-Jewish relative’s motorcycle. Together they crossed the Swiss border and Etzioni was able to join his parents who had fled earlier to Greece.
He grew up in Palestine and at the boarding school he attended were students who’d gotten out of Germany between 1938 and 1940 on “Kindertransport,” which carried Jewish children to the United Kingdom for safety. “The Nazis would have let many more children go, but it was hard to raise money for it, and they couldn’t raise enough,” he says. “And that has bearing on the bill,” he says.
The bill he is talking about is the “Sheltering Syrian Children in America Act.” California Congressman Mike Honda introduced it in the final hours of the last day of Congress. His staff calls it the “Miracle on the Hill.” It calls for bringing in 25,000 child refugees from Syria over a period of three years to live with foster families.
The process would be overseen by a coordinator appointed by the Health and Human Services Secretary, and work within the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS. Ideally, Congress would appropriate funds to cover transportation and other costs, while the host families would provide day-to-day support as though these were their own children.
Knowing Congress can’t be relied on when it comes to allocating taxpayer money even for a good bipartisan cause, Etzioni has sent letters to ten major volunteer organizations, including United Appeal, requesting funds. “I want to make it easy for them,” he says of the lawmakers whose support he needs to make the Save the Children bill a reality.
Rep. Honda told the Daily Beast that he only became aware of the issue in the final week of the 2016 session, and he moved quickly. After sixteen years representing Silicon Valley, he’s retiring, and “laying down a marker” was what he could do “so that in the next session (of Congress), it will be all ready to go.”
He hopes that his sponsorship will serve to inspire others. Honda is a survivor of the Japanese internment camps that were set up after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “What happened to us in World War Two was completely contrary to our national character,” he says.
The Save the Children Act of 2016 is “something positive that government can do. The world’s most powerful country with the most resources assisting those with the least power and the least resources is part of our national heritage.”
Etzioni had been pushing his idea for more than a year, “writing about it here and there, and speaking about it, but to go beyond that, I needed a bill,” he recounted. He sent letters to ten major law firms, asking if they would donate their services to draft a bill. Covington & Burling said yes, and Layth Elhassani, an attorney who had been in the Obama White House for three years as part of the legislative affairs team jumped at the chance to make the kind of difference with Congress that had eluded him in many meetings about Syria.
“Going into the holiday season, there’s the sense around town of people feeling disempowered and helpless. Whether it’s about the election or not, the beauty of the bill is you don’t have to be for expanded immigration or a bigger government, this is a public-private partnership that is focused around the children of a civil war.”
With the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, lawmakers are nervous about any initiative involving refugees. Last year, New Jersey Governor and then-Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie said he would oppose letting any Syrian refugees in—even young orphans.
“The fact is, that we need appropriate vetting and I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point,” he said, calling it “shameful” that President Obama would put foreign children’s lives above his duty to “protect the safety and the security of the American people.” He didn’t elaborate on the threat those toddlers and small children would pose.
“If there are ways to lower the security risk further, we’re all ears,” says Elhassani. “We’re not here to roll the dice on security. We’re trying to be part of a solution to what is a much larger problem.”
Congress is gone for the holidays, but Etzioni was on Capitol Hill this week meeting with staff of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle looking for sponsors to pick up the marker Congressman Honda put down. There are precedents. In addition to Kindertransport which saved children from what would become the Holocaust, Etzioni is reminding policymakers about a program very similar to what he is advocating called Operation Peter Pan, which brought Cuban children to the United States between 1960 and 1962.
Cuba of course was entwined in Cold War politics, so the incentive to help went beyond humanitarian relief. Operation Peter Pan was created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and financed by U.S. corporations. One of the 14,000 children it sponsored was former Florida Senator Mel Martinez, who also chaired the Republican National Committee.
“I’ve been trying to remind people that we have not only rights but we are parts of communities,” says Etzioni, who in the 1990s pioneered a communitarian philosophy that balances rights with responsibilities. He is an Israeli-American sociologist, the author of more than twenty books, and the leader of the Communitarian Network. His idea to save Syrian children will test the next Congress.
Compared to everything else before them, it’s a small idea, but it says a lot about who we are, and the values we cherish.