Pittsfield and Berkshire County have watched from the sidelines as the world's refugee tragedy has unfolded. Now residents can help make a difference.
The Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts is leading an initiative to relocate refugees, primarily from Syria and Iraq, to Pittsfield and surrounding towns by year's end. The Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations are joining the effort, along with local officials, and the groups will host a public forum on Monday at 6 p.m. at the Berkshire Athenaeum to outline the specifics of the federally backed program.
The proposal comes as a United Nations summit hosted by President Obama generated pledges from dozens of countries to resettle or admit roughly 360,000 refugees. If the countries follow through on their pledges this will have a huge impact, but the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates that 1.2 million refugees trying to escape war, drought, poverty and persecution need to find homes.
The proposal also comes in the wake of the Ken Burns documentary "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War" which was televised on PBS Tuesday night. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife Martha were asked by the Unitarian Church to go to Europe to help Jewish refugees escape the rapidly growing Nazi threat. Leaving their two young children behind, the Sharps went into the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Their success in saving Jewish families as well as Jewish writers, scientists and journalists, involved remarkable courage and daring, and it makes for an enthralling documentary. However, their exploits became necessary because the U.S. and other Western nations left a 1938 summit in France to discuss the growing number of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis without committing to rescuing them and taking them in.
It was a shameful moment in U.S. history, although the U.S. did better in providing refuge in later years to those fleeing the former Soviet Union. The Jewish Family Service helped settled some of those refugees in Western Massachusetts. The Pittsfield effort, however, comes at time when even modest U.S. plans to bring in refugees from the Middle East are hampered by fear and prejudice.
Republican presidential Donald Trump is at the forefront with his usual brand of misinformation. Mr. Trump has called for "extreme vetting" of refugees because "we don't know who they are," but extreme vetting is already in place and we know exactly who they are. Four federal agencies screen refugees, conducting security checks and interviews and scanning fingerprint records. The highest priority is given to families in a process that can take two years or longer.
At an Eagle meeting to discuss the refugee proposal Tuesday, City Councilor John Krol observed that Pittsfield is a good choice because of its long immigrant tradition. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy and other nations helped build the city, and immigrants from South and Central America, Africa and elsewhere are contributing to its renaissance. It was encouraging to learn Tuesday that Pittsfield officials, businesses and residents have expressed enthusiasm about the proposed refugee program.
From letters they had written home while in Europe, it was apparent that the Sharps didn't see themselves as heroes but were moved by a sense of duty to help their fellow human beings when they were in need. The children and grandchildren of the refugees aided by the Sharps spoke in the documentary of the couple's success in saving families and preserving future generations.
Americans face that same obligation, especially considering that the Iraq war destabilized the Middle East and is at the root of the refugee crisis. Pittsfield can help meet that obligation and contribute to the growing diversity of the city and region by supporting the proposed refugee program and welcoming a few families trying to rebuild their lives.