Like more than a few Chicagoans, I am the child of a refugee. Near the end of World War II, my late father, then in his early 20s, was plucked out of his village in western Ukraine by Nazi soldiers and forced into labor in Germany. He ran away from the farm he was assigned to, was captured and reassigned, ran away again, and then joined UPA, the Ukrainian underground army.
Some branches of UPA were accused of committing atrocities in their ultimately futile campaign for a free Ukraine. My father told us he never participated in any of that—he said his band of UPA spent the waning years of the war hiding from the Germans, Russians, and Poles in the forests of western Ukraine. They continued to hide after the war formally ended, because they were being hunted by the Soviets, who considered UPA a terrorist organization.
Eventually they made it to a Czechoslovakian border and safety. My gaunt father was hospitalized for a time, then transferred to a camp for “displaced persons.” The postwar realignment of borders had put his village under Soviet rule, and he was certain he’d be sent to Siberia if he returned home. Former inhabitants of his village who’d emigrated to Chicago were willing to sponsor him here, and in 1949 he took the long boat trip to America. He never saw his immediate family again.
Because of his involvement with UPA, he was interviewed by the FBI at Ellis Island, but he was accepted into the U.S. He traveled by train to Chicago, and moved into a small Ukrainian enclave near 51st and Ashland, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. That’s where he met my mother, a first-generation Ukrainian-American. He found work in the stockyards and then, for 30 years, worked as a CTA mechanic, fixing el trains in a shop in Englewood. He learned English and became a U.S. citizen along the way, and helped my mother raise my brother and me.
I’m ever grateful that this nation opened its doors to him. I think refugees such as my father have contributed to the vibrant mix that’s made Chicago such a fascinating city. And I’m proud to live in a country that continues to welcome refugees whose lives have been riven by strife elsewhere.
The terrorist attacks in Paris Friday have tested that willingness to welcome others. The attacks have increased fears of terrorism here in the U.S., posing a test for our political leaders. They can respond with a reassuring composure, or with a demagoguery that fans the fears.
That test now centers on the stance toward Syrian refugees.
Boston mayor Marty Walsh, whose city suffered through a terrorist bombing less than three years ago, said yesterday about the refugees: “As a city and as a country it is not our custom to turn our backs on people who are in need and who are innocent.”
President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to accept 10,000 of the Syrian refugees: ”Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said.
And there are the 25 Republican governors who’ve said they’d block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, though it’s not clear that they have the power to do so. Among them is Illinois’s own Bruce Rauner.
Rauner announced yesterday that Illinois will temporarily suspend accepting new Syrian refugees “and consider all of our legal options pending a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes” by the Department of Homeland Security.
”Our nation and our state have a shared history of providing safe haven for those displaced by conflict,” the governor said in his statement. “But the news surrounding the Paris terror attacks reminds us of the all-too-real security threats facing America.”
If Rauner has his way, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free after Syria might have to look somewhere other than the Land of Lincoln.