A Descendent of Refugees: Standing in Solidarity with This Generation of Refugees

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Grandma Martha and Grandpa Marty with Shayna and mom. Grandma Martha's father fled Austria/Poland because of antisemitism in the military. Photo provided by Shayna Plaut.

My name means beautiful refugee.

My grandparents on my father’s side were from Germany.

On my mother’s side my people thought they were Austrian, but, when I found the town in 2002, it was in Poland about 45 minutes away from the Ukrainian border. So now they would be Polish. Borders in that region are fuzzy things.

But really they were just Jews.

That was all that really mattered. That is why my great grandfather was locked up in an attic with feral cats by his fellow military “brothers.” And when, after he finished his forced conscription and heard that Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, he turned to his wife and young daughter and said, “I have to leave now. There is going to be war and they are going to kill me.” “Who? The Enemy?” asked his wife, my great grandmother. “No. My own unit. Now they will have the excuse to kill the Jew.”

That is why when the secret police came to Hintersteinau, a little town not far from Frankfort, the neighbor helpfully informed them that my grandmother’s family faithfully lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night. That is why, at the age of 35 years, my grandmother came to New York with $200 in her pocket (that was the limit then) and four words of English: “chicken, potato, sweetheart and darling.” The joke for the rest of her life was that she could get a date and a meal.

Nature or Nurture?

There was no official legal definition of a refugee then. That was not created until 1951 with the UN Refugee Convention. There were “displaced persons” but, because they were not forcibly removed from their home, that did not work for my grandparents either. My grandparents were just people who were hated because of their religion and the assumption that, because they were Jewish, they were probably communists, or at least socialist sympathizers. Usually, the hatred was just the low consistent hum of exclusion. Of doors closing in your face. Of not quite being full citizens in one’s own home. Of knowing you could never get that job with that name of yours. Sometimes, however, this hatred was physical, like the daily beatings and humiliation my great grandfather experienced in the Kaiser’s Army. Sometimes they were ominous, like when Hitler marched in front of my grandmother’s house. The real fear was the constant state of fear, of never knowing when it was going to get worse.

Perhaps that is why I have always felt connected to refugees.

It is literally in my blood.

But I often think that my connection to refugees is because I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. My high school had 43 languages flowing down the hall and I thought this was normal. Khmer, Spanish, Hmong, Russian, Farsi, Vietnamese — all of these children were refugees or the children of refugees. They were not “them.” They were my classmates.

So maybe my connection to refugees is because of environment.

Nature. Nurture. And eternal debate. Either way, refugees were not – and are not – foreign to me and are certainly not scary.

Shayna with great Grandpa Gustav's menorah (Grandma Betty's father). Photo provided by Shayna Plaut.

Culture Talk

Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of Anthropology and Political Science who splits his time between Columbia University and Kampala University, coined a term called “culture talk,” which is when political situations are explained away in the name of someone else’s culture. Why don’t Roma children go to school? Because they don’t respect education in their culture. Never mind that they are often relegated to living on the outskirts of town with no school buses or running water and that, when they do go to school, they are bullied and forced into segregated classes with substandard education and little to no job prospects. Why are there so many black and Latino men in the criminal justice system in the US? Because their culture is violent and because going to prison is a rite of passage into manhood. Never mind systemic racism in the police force and judiciary, substandard education and disgracefully high rates of employment discrimination. Why is there terrorism in the Middle East and south Asia? Because it is a special brand of “Islamic” terrorism – because in their culture this is how they make their point. Never mind that in all the places where this kind of terrorism takes place there have been decades of political instability, economic devastation and international meddling in the form of colonialism, coups, wars and/or covert operations. When these kinds of cultural explanations are offered, essentializing and assigning blame to specific groups based on their “culture,” then political solutions are no longer sought after. The problem is them. It is cultural. It is because of who they are, not because of social conditions or oppression or political dynamics at work. And it is this kind of (mis)logic that allows for people who are exercising their legal right to seek safety – a basic human right – to suddenly be seen as a threat.

Current Response to Syrian Refugees

I now turn to the current discussion surrounding the most recent wave of refugees in international headlines. Those from Syria. This is not the largest amount of refugees, nor the ones who have been displaced the longest; Palestinians have been displaced for 3-4 generations, whereas more than 350,000 Somalis are currently housed in the largest refuge camp in the world in Kenya.  But there is something about the Syrian refugees. Perhaps it is because the cities of Aleppo or Holms are mentioned in the Torah, Quran and Bible. Perhaps because they are mostly middle class. Perhaps because, in desperation, they literally started walking to safety and this was caught on camera, Instagram and Facebook. Who knows? But there is something about the Syrian refugees that has caught the world’s attention and, from Turkey to Germany to Lebanon to Canada, the doors were opened.

And then there was Paris.

And the doors slammed shut.


Who are these people?

How do we know they are not going to hurt us?

“The perfect Trojan Horse.”

It doesn’t matter that the people who masterminded Paris were Belgian and French. It was the same rhetoric that we saw after 9-11 when, as Tram Ngyuen aptly put it, “we (immigrants) are all suspects now.” It didn’t matter that all of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9-11 attacks entered the US legally. This is how the now defunct special registration program was justified. When people are scared, facts don’t matter.

And then there was Colorado Springs and San Bernardino.

Whereas Colorado Springs was defined as misguided political action, San Bernardino was terrorism.

Now all people who are not like “us” – whether citizen or foreigner – are suspect, are potential killers.(Of course no one questions who is this “us” that “we” are preserving? Nor the fact that the overwhelming majority of mass murders in the US are carried out by angry white men.)

It is in their blood.

It is in their environment.

Nature. Nurture. Evil.

This is called racism.

It is the same racism that allowed my grandparents to be suspected of everything from communism to child sacrifices. It is the reason why boats of Jewish childrenwere turned away in the US and Canada and Europe. They are children now, but you know what they will grow up into. Don’t you? They will be Jews.

Shayna with Grandma Betty who left Germany after Hitler marched in front of her house. Photo provided by Shayna Plaut.

What Can Be Learned as an American Jew Living in Canada?

I write this piece as an American Jew living in Canada and thus I write from an interesting perspective of what Patricia Hill Collins calls “outsider within.” I am, in many ways, a hidden immigrant. I am white. I speak English as a first language. I teach in a Canadian university. But, as an American citizen, I can’t vote in Canadian elections. And this lack of citizenship was quite an issue for me in the most recent elections because, under the previous Conservative government lead by Prime Minster Harper, Canada was increasingly falling prey to the politics of fear. This could be seen in the debates surrounding the “security threat” of the niqab. Or the hotline set up to report on the “barbaric cultural practices” of one’s neighbors. But, perhaps most tellingly, the politics of fear was behind the death of the little boy, Alan Kurdi, who, in early September, died on the shores of Turkey. Alan’s father had a sister living in the suburbs of Vancouver. She had tried to sponsor him and his family (including Alan).Her application was denied because, as a security precaution, all applications from Syrian nationals had to receive personal approval from the Prime Minister’s office.

Alan’s death was one of the things that turned the tide in the elections and helped to oust Harper. Recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees on top of the annual allotment of government-sponsored refugees coming to Canada. And, although the details of the plan have changed (the deadline has been pushed back a few months; the refugees will be both government assisted refugees and privately sponsored), what was most interesting to watch, as an American, was how the government responded to the emergence of fear within the Canadian public.

There were fearful and racist responses to bringing in such a large amount of Syrian refugees in such a short time frame. There were petitions signed from cities up in the North where many of the refugees were originally going to be settled. After the terrorist attack in Paris, a mosque in suburban Ontario was torched.

But the government did not shirk away from its objective, nor did it pretend to not hear the concerns of its citizenry. It listened and made some significant logistical changes while still keeping the main goal of providing refuge for 25,000 people fleeing violence.

Canada is not perfect. There are many things in this country that I find problematic. But in this case, the government governed, and the Canadian electorate voted out the fear-mongering Conservative government. There is a lot to be learned from this.

I am the descendent of refugees. I work every day to make my ancestors proud. And, right now, that means standing in solidarity with this generation of refugees.

8 thoughts on “A Descendent of Refugees: Standing in Solidarity with This Generation of Refugees

  1. Two points.
    I too, lived in Canada for many years – an outsider within.
    I too am descendants of refugees. My father was one of the sea of people who left their beloved Ireland because there was no place, no work and no future for them there. My mother’s people left England in the middle 1600s for similar reasons. In fact we are all children of refugees. There is a myth that people came to these shores by choice. In fact, most had no other choice. Most planned on returning to their homeland. And in fact many of them did.
    So what makes the past more pressing than the present loss of place, safety, work and a future?
    Thank you for your piece. Hope it helped others firm up their thinking and know their place.
    Indecently, I left Canada without securing a Canadian citizenship- one of the biggest regrets in my life.

  2. Thank you all for your comments and reflections and engagement. Jonathan you are right to point out my CURRENT privilege — two generations removed — and it is for that reason that I commit myself to using such privilege to combat racism in policy and rhetoric and to ensure that the right things are done for this generation of refugees.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection connecting generations, continents, people. In solidarity…

  4. Responding to Jeremy. Yes, Shayna’s narrative can be seen as a narrative of privilege, which I know she would acknowledge. But it takes two generations for the people in her story to become settled and accepted in a new society to the point that they can be called “privileged.” We have to learn from history. We have to learn from the history of our own peoples. I would hope that Syrians who are persecuted find safe haven. If they can not return safely to their own countries, I would hope that the places they settle allow them to integrate and – over time – live their lives without suffering from the stigma of racism that they are subjected to today in Europe and the U.S. Whether the eradication of racism towards people from the Middle East will ever happen in Europe and the U.S. (for all the historical reasons that racism exists in those areas) is something we have to work towards. Shayna’s evocation of her family’s history of two generations ago does not detract from the story of the Syrians’ current reality. Rather it bridges “otherness” and shows where her understanding and current motivations come from. Good work, Shayna.

  5. Shayna – a great piece! I’m really proud of any credit the University of Chicago can claim as contributing to your development as an activist/scholar of human rights. Happy Chanukah (a bit late) and a happy and peaceful 2016 to you and yours! Susan

  6. Thank you for providing such a meaningful conversation between the present and the past. I have posted it to our Facebook page — East Side Freedom Library.

  7. Your piece does well for generating empathy with the Syrian people and I understand the contextualization that you are trying to do. However I think there is no need to conflate your own personal narrative (which does read as a narrative of privilege) with the stories of the Syrian people. Your doing so, unfortunately, takes something away from their stories.

  8. You are, indeed, a credit to your family and to humanity. I am sure that someone like you will come from the Syrian refugees, and the world will be better for it. Thank you for this very moving piece.

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