At airports from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona, and New York to Seattle, we are once again seeing young children hugging their mothers and fathers after years of painful separation thanks to the Biden administration’s decision earlier this year to quadruple the number of refugees allowed into the country.
They are children like Melissa Paredes from Guatemala, left behind by her mother seeking economic opportunity in America, and reunited after five long years.
They are young men like Mohammed Al Tallal and his two brothers, separated for six years after their parents fled Iraq in 2014, now finally reunited in Tucson.
They are young women like Mauwa Mitambo, left behind by her parents fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, finally reunited in Boise after half a decade apart.
Such scenes are joyous and heartwarming. But they are also too few and far between.
The Biden administration’s efforts earlier this year to raise the number of refugees America will accept to 62,500 from just 15,000 is a positive step, but after the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle refugee programs, so much more is needed.
The number of displaced persons across the globe has more than doubled to 82 million in the last 10 years; 26 million are refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These people are fleeing political persecution, like my parents did in the 1970s, violence and, increasingly, the effects of climate change.
Those finally able to get to safe shores will need not just assistance with housing and food, but education and mental-health counseling. The pain of these separations doesn’t disappear the day a child is reunited with her mother and father at the airport. I know this all too well.
I, too, was separated from my family for political reasons back in the early 1970s, when communist countries like mine, Hungary, sealed their borders, refusing to allow anyone to leave. Some courageous people, like my parents, left anyway, using the one way they knew how. Tourist visas allowed entry to a western country if you were willing to leave one member of your immediate family behind. This was done to make sure families did not defect.
I was just 5 when my parents escaped, telling no one but my aging grandmother, and my life changed forever. I was left with relatives in a small village, in a house with no running water, and a grandmother and an aunt who faced daily humiliations by an envious uncle who resented my Jewish father’s choice to seek a better life — and made it known in foul language.
For five long years, I waited and hoped and prayed to see my family again. Every year my mother sent a letter: “Maybe we will be together by next Christmas,” she wrote. As the years passed, as one holiday rolled into another with no change, I lost hope of ever seeing my family again.
When the Cold War began to fade, when President Richard Nixon went to China, and when a congressman from the Bronx took an interest in what was by that point our family’s five-year separation, the Hungarian government relented, and I was able to finally join my family in New York.
But our journey and recovery as a family only began on that day. Much healing was needed to overcome the guilt, the bitterness, the feelings of loss, apprehension and mistrust. I had to get to know my parents, as they now were, in this new country, this new place, where they too were strangers struggling to fit in. I, too, had changed. I was no longer the confident, rambunctious 5-year-old my parents left. I was a frightened preteen with no idea how to navigate a huge public school in the Bronx when I didn’t even speak a word of English. The trauma of these long family separations is real and can be lasting.
Fortunately, we are blessed with organizations such the International Rescue Committee, Jewish Family Services, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (which helped my family) and Lutheran Social Services, all of which help families with housing, furnishings, tutoring and much more. Many of these organizations will have to rebuild after COVID-19, after their programs were cut during the Trump years. They will need dedicated volunteers to restart, to go into schools and tutor children, and pick up where they left off.
But we, as a nation, must also pick up where we left off before the Trump years and rededicate ourselves to the notion that immigration is a huge win-win for America, that we as a country can again be a beacon of light and hope, and that we can once again be a leader among nations for welcoming those who risk so much to get here.
For all the children still sleeping in a tent in a cramped refugee camp, for the children facing gang violence in Central America, for the children separated at the border and still praying to see their mother and father, we as a nation must do better.