Tuesday, September 08, 2015

TOP STORY >> Déjà vu: Refugees from ’50s to today

Leader editor-in-chief

The scenes of Syrian refugees stranded last week at the two main train stations in Budapest brought back memories of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, when my family took a train from Budapest to the Austrian border in December ahead of the Soviet army that had crushed the uprising.

We left the train station in the morning and it took us just a few hours to get to the border. It was like traveling from Little Rock to Fort Smith, give or take a few miles.

We set out on foot near the border on a cold night with about 20 people and a guide our families had hired to take us to freedom.

We had to avoid landmines and border guards who lit up the skies with searchlights.

We fell on the ground when we saw the lights in the distance and started walking again when the searchlights turned in another direction. We walked all night toward Austria, where a friendly border guard in a big gray winter coat waved toward us at dawn and told us we were safe now.

More than 200,000 Hungarians made it to Austria that winter. In Vienna, people gave us chocolates. Their grandchildren may be the ones who handed out candy last weekend to the refugees who are hoping to get to the promised land — Germany.

Today’s refugees are less welcome in Hungary, where it’s a crime to shelter migrants.

Pope Francis wants every parish to take in refugees, but the Hungarian government and the church in that predominately Catholic country have pretty much ignored him. One cardinal said the Pope was wrong about the migrants, who deserved no sympathy from Hungarians.

While our journey was less than 200 miles, refugees today travel for a thousand miles or more through several countries on foot, by boat and by train. Many perish along the way, while others are forced to return home.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing wars and persecution every month. Four million have fled the fighting in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad tries to hold onto power against rebel forces and the so-called Islamic State.

Some 40,000 migrants are on the move daily — the equivalent of evacuating everyone in Cabot, Ward, Austin and Beebe every day.

Abdullah al-Kurdi last week buried his 2-year-old son Aylan Kurdi, his brother and mother in Kobani, Syria, after their bodies were washed ashore on a beach in Turkey.

You’ve seen pictures of the boys and their dangling little feet as a Turkish policeman carried them away. Those are perhaps the most dramatic photos of the plight of four million Syrians trying to find new homes away from the genocidal civil war in Syria.

They had fled Kobani months ago after the Islamic State had massacred their relatives. The survivors paid smugglers to get them to Turkey, but that was as far as they could go.

After his children and wife died on their journey, al-Kurdi buried them in their home town.

At about the same time as the funeral, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz came to Washington. He booked 220 rooms at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel before his meeting at the White House with President Obama. They both agreed the nuclear treaty with Iran posed no threat to the Saudis.

You’d think 220 Syrian refugees could stay in a safe refugee camp for several years somewhere for about the same amount of money the Saudis spent on one night at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Our friends the Saudis, like the other Gulf states, have shut their borders to Syrian refugees, while Germany prepares to take in some 800,000 refugees this year. With their oil wealth, the Saudis could not only build comfortable refugee camps for that many migrants in their vast desert kingdom but also pay for food and medicine indefinitely.

Instead, they’re lecturing the West for turning back refugees while the Gulf states do nothing.

It was 35 years ago this summer that Cuban refugees rioted at Fort Chaffee, which temporarily derailed the political career of a young governor named Bill Clinton, who made a comeback two years later and went on to bigger things a decade on.

Politicians often pay the price for welcoming refugees, but sometimes politicians will search their souls and do the right thing, even if it means losing the next election, the way Clinton and President Carter did that fall.

But nobody complains about the boatlift from Mariel bay that brought 120,000 Cuban refugees to the U.S. in 1980 and at least as many a decade earlier. Cubans, like Hungarian-Americans, have become fully integrated in American society.

Germany says it can take in 500,000 refugees a year for several more years, while other European nations say they’ll do a fraction of that. As the world of Islam implodes, almost 2 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, more than 1 million to Lebanon and 630,000 to Jordan. And the Gulf states? Zero.