There have been many significant days in my life, but the most important of all was Nov. 11, 1948. That was the day my family and I arrived in the United States, beginning a new life in exile from our native Czechoslovakia.
In contrast to countless Americans who came before and after us, we were not a hardship case. My father was at the United Nations and we had diplomatic passports. We did not escape through barbed wire, or cross stormy seas by raft. But we were fleeing a brutal communist government, and found a welcoming home in the most generous nation on earth.
Today, there are millions of people across the Middle East and Africa facing far more dire circumstances, and for them America remains a beacon of hope. Yet as the world confronts the worst refugee crisis in decades, barely a trickle of those displaced by violence are being offered resettlement in the United States. During the more than four years of fighting in Syria, we have taken in only a little more than 1,500 of the four million people who have fled the country. America can and must do much, much more.
President Obama and Secretary Kerry have announced that the total number of refugees allowed in by the United States would increase by 30,000 to 100,000 in 2017. That is a welcome first step, but by the administration’s own admission it is only a fraction of the necessary response. Historically, the United States has resettled more than 50 percent of the world’s eligible refugees, which is why religious leaders, national security experts, and humanitarian organizations are calling for the United States to take in 100,000 Syrians next year on an extraordinary basis. I strongly support this proposal.
For the United States to meet this challenge, the president will need to work with Congress to obtain the necessary resources for an expedited yet secure processing program. But I worry that some in Congress, reflecting parts of the American public, believe we should leave it to countries in the Middle East and in Europe to sort this problem out themselves. Refugees are seen as a burden, and because many of them are Muslim, they are also wrongly seen as a threat.
It is time we remember that to keep moving forward, our country needs the continued refreshment of new sources of energy and strength. As Pope Francis reminded us last week, we are a nation of immigrants. Despite the rhetoric of this political season, our diversity and inclusiveness remain the qualities that define our nation and its purpose to the world. I still recall my father telling me, “Elsewhere, when you arrive as a refugee, they say, ‘We’re sorry you had to leave your country. What can we do to help you? And by the way, when are you going home?’ In America, they say, ‘We’re sorry you had to leave your country. What can we do to help you? And by the way, when will you become a citizen?’ ”
Refugees are not charity cases, they are people who can add to the vitality of our neighborhoods, the health of our economy, and the strength of our democracy. And today’s displaced, from Syria and elsewhere, are no different from generations past in terms of what they can contribute to our national life. We cannot argue that the day after we or our forebears entered is the day the door to America should have swung shut.
No one is suggesting that admitting more refugees to the United States will resolve the underlying crisis in the Middle East. We need to work urgently to end the horrendous violence and barrel bombing in Syria, while helping the people of the region rebuild their societies over the long term — which is a focus of the Atlantic Council’s new Middle East Strategy Task Force I am cochairing with former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. But if the United States is to be taken seriously, and press our allies in the Middle East and in Europe to do more to foster peace, we must show leadership and a willingness to shoulder our special responsibilities. Perhaps the simplest and most important way to start is to embrace more of the region’s most vulnerable people. And like my family, they too can become grateful defenders of the American dream.Madeleine Albright served as the 64th US secretary of state and is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.