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Open Doors for Refugees picnic

Jim Wildeman, third from right, leads a parachute game last August at a picnic hosted by the local group Open Doors for Refugees at Olin Park. "This is Madison's response to an unfair American response to immigration in America," Wildeman said. "America is not an unwelcoming country."

News that President Donald Trump is trying to tighten this country’s already stringent immigration controls has hit me hard, but not as hard as it has immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. By executive order, which has been put on hold by federal courts, the president ordered a temporary halt to visas for people from those North African and Middle Eastern nations — families with small children, young men and women trying to escape war, devastation and political oppression.

Why do I care? It’s because I am the child of immigrants, refugees even. My father, a German Jew who was working as a photojournalist in Spain when his quota number came up, owed his life to his sponsor, a man from Pittsburgh he scarcely knew. My father’s parents and aunts weren’t so fortunate and were gassed in one of Hitler’s concentration camps.

Because of my family background, several months ago I joined Open Doors for Refugees, a not-for-profit organization in Madison committed to bringing attention to the refugee crisis in Syria and other parts of the world. Its volunteers are hard at work building communitywide support for resettlement in the Madison area, assisting local social service agencies that received contracts from the federal government to bring about 150 refugees to Madison in 2017. That effort is now in question because of our new president.

Over the last several months I have been amazed at the well-spring of interest and the outpouring of support for the plight of refugees. What started out as a handful of concerned citizens has turned into a solid group of well over a hundred individuals that helps find apartments and jobs for these new arrivals, provides translation services, and raises money to help pay for necessities like food, bedding and clothes. We have organized gatherings to tell these new arrivals that they are welcome here and that we believe they have much to offer our community.

When my parents arrived in the United States, they embraced America with fervor and became citizens as soon as they could. They learned American history — actually my mother taught the subject in middle school. They got jobs, they paid taxes, they honored and respected the law. They were, in their own way, patriots, voting in every election (once they were citizens, of course) that I can remember, even taking me to the polling booth for early lessons in American democracy.

Why should we expect that new arrivals from Iran or Iraq or Syria won’t feel the same way my parents did about their new country? What frightens us so when we hear the word Muslim, the way 70 years ago some Americans did when they heard the word Jew?

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Ronnie Hess is a writer who lives in Madison.

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