Her name was Emma Lazarus and she was a Jew, born in New York, in 1849. She studied literature and languages but her passion was Jewish history – especially as it related to Jews who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and immigrated to America.
Emma wrote the six lines that were inscribed in bronze, in 1903, at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
Those lines of poetry defined for the world the America we were on the cusp of the 20th Century. But they still feel relevant to me today, as we witness the terrible refugee crisis, the worst since World War II, unfolding before our eyes in the Middle East and Europe. In fact I’d say those words feel downright prophetic.
Lady Liberty faces out to sea with torch in hand, beckoning to the world’s poor huddled masses, far from our shores – homeless, and pursued by war and hate.
But “refugees” is an abstraction. What’s real are the aged, women, fathers carrying infants, and most touchingly – if such a thing is possible –the children. Theirs are the faces abstraction hides. They flee from mankind’s incessant intentional destruction, seeking shelter and protection. And some of them – like so many refugees before them – carry the hope of becoming Americans.
A few weeks ago, while my car was being serviced, I picked up a Time magazine in a waiting room. A few pages in from the cover, prominently placed, was a two page color photo. No text. The photo told the story.
We see a little boy of five or six, wearing the sort of t-shirt any kid might wear; his sister is clutching his hand; and both their faces are covered with tears and shadowed with fear. Their father tries to hold them as they’re caught up in a mob of other refugees and police in helmets and with shields. These children are from Syria.
Another recent photo of a Syrian child simply stunned me. The three year old boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi. He and his five year old brother and their mother drowned while fleeing by sea. Only the father survived. The little boy’s lifeless body had washed up on the shore and I noticed the little sneakers on his feet as a Turkish policeman picked him up.
Emma Lazarus wrote of a young America with open arms. We may no longer be quite so young, but hopefully our willingness to welcome those in need of safe harbor is still strong.