First they Came For..............

Do you know that poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller? He wrote it due to his experiences in Nazi Germany. He spent most of WWII as a POW, 1937 thru 1945, confined in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. It is a statement about the dangers of political apathy.


The majority of Americans have no idea what it is like to live in conditions of war, we have been pretty lucky as a nation to not have much of a history of war on our soil in current memory and experience. Our returning soldiers do, our companions who survived 9/11, and immigrants from WWII Europe and Vietnam do but most, the majority of, Americans do not. We as citizens have not lived through constant air raids and food rationing. We have been fortunate. Pastor Niemoller saw all of that and more. We have wounded warriors who saw it in Afghanistan and Iraq, some have seen it Rwanda and Somalia. It can seem overwhelming to consider how many terrible, frightening places in the world there are due to violence and war. I share that sentiment and sometimes I have to turn it off. Slowly though this poem seems to seep back in to my psyche as a picture of a drowned little boy on the shores of a beach on the other side of the world, one of many fleeing hopelessness. We think we are safe in our America but as the events in Paris, the Boston Marathon and 9/11 show us- we are not. We could be a victim of terrorist insanity. Like you, I don't want to live like the people in Syria, or any other place like that. Read the poem and hopefully at the end of this article you will understand why we can't just stand by and watch from the safety of our living room.

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

Depending on your accident of birth you may be a Syrian or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew. In the poem you can substitute the words socialist, unionist and Jew for any group of people that aren't you but by the end of the poem there is only 'me' and that is all of us, no matter our background. It could be us. We are being asked to help people from one of the largest mass immigrations since WWII and encouragingly many people are stepping up to the plate in countries around the world. People here in the US are sending donations and are offering what help they can. Doctors Without Borders are helping. The Red Cross is helping. Thousands of small actions lead to big action and you can contribute even if it is just a tiny contribution.


It does mean that we may have to step outside our comfort zone and do something uncomfortable even scary but perhaps our small action will lead to something bigger than our selves. Among those refugees may be the person who will find a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease or the invention of clean sustainable energy. Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Werner Von Braun were people that many Americans at the time may have felt we should not allow in the country. Von Braun had worked with Nazi's on building bombs and rockets, it was a risk allowing him to live here but he went on to develop the rockets that launched America's first space satellite and first series of moon missions. Godel is now in the same league as Aristotle and Gottlob Frege, and considered one of the most significant logicians in history who made an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century. Steve Jobs biological father is Abdulfattah "John" Jandali, a Muslim from Homs, Syria. Brilliant genius minds do not come along every day. It is tragic when we lose people who are close to working on important advances in the progress of human enhancement. This is one argument in favor of allowing refugees to call America home. Scrutinizing and researching a refugee's qualifications and background would be an essential part of asylum and it  is already a part of the process. Secondly, consider the sense of pride and honor and gratitude a person who has given up everything and escaped with meager belongings will have to their new country. I have the honor of knowing many immigrants, some from WWII, one woman lived in the sewers of Germany to hide from the Nazi's, and she has lived a productive and fruitful life as an American citizen. Another was a POW in a Nazi camp and he has made contributions to our military program. My father sponsored a family from the Ukraine during the fall of the USSR- today they are industrious, hardworking people contributing to their community.

Unfortunately, American does not have a heart warming record of refugee treatment. We know now that a quarter of the 908 Jewish refugees from Germany we turned away on the MS St. Louis died in death camps. The Japanese Internment Camps are a stain on our collective culture. An excellent article by Nick Wing and Chris McGonigal of the Huffington Post strengthened my compassion for the plight of the Syrian people. The photographs are difficult to see but paint a bleak picture of the life of our fellow humans. Equally disturbing are some of the comments below the article, hopefully they represent the minority.


Currently we have about half of our states vowing to not allow Syrians into their states despite international and Constitutional law that compels us to accept refugees. Proudly, Governor Brown of my state of California is not one of them, Brown: "I intend to work closely with the President so that he can both uphold America's traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way. You can be sure that we will do everything in our power to protect the people of our state." 

Having the pleasure of knowing immigrants and refugees personally, my life has been enhanced by their stories and their gratitude. I am reminded of a line from a U2 song, One,

"We're one
But we're not the same
We get to carry each other
Carry each other"

Bono wrote, 'we get to carry each other" He did not write, we 'should' or we are 'obligated', song writers are very careful in their word choice, he used the word 'get' and it implies privilege, honor. We are fortunate to be able to help another. "From a very simple message comes a very powerful meaning: we cannot get along with each other all of the time. There will always be conflicts, and relationships always take work and sometimes fail. However, we all must be responsible for each other if we are to keep our world going."


This particular wave of refugees is not exactly like us, they have different beliefs and different religious views but they are also like us in that they have children they want to protect, they are doctors who want to serve, they are scientists who want to discover new ideas, they are adult children who want to protect their parents in old age. It is possible to be gracious to them without bringing harm to ourselves. We can do it by improving our vetting process. We can do it by the skills of our immigration people and the technology that we have. If I have inspired you to want to help (and I hope I have) here are some places to start. "How to help Syrian refugees? These 6 groups you may not know are doing important work."


If you are concerned about terrorists hiding among refugees, remember- these people are leaving EVERYTHING behind to get away from terrorists but here is a graph that may help ease your mind. "The history of the refugee resettlement program has a nearly spotless record when it comes to ensuring that those offered a place in the U.S. are not inclined towards committing acts of terrorism."

We could continue to be fortunate and never need someone to speak for us, and I hope you and I never do, but then again we may and hopefully the words, "Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." will not haunt us because we did nothing.


Deborah Baron

Deborah Baron

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  • Love it, I'm going to share this helping others to understand.

  • This is so well written, Deborah, and with acute historical insight. I would only add that science is looking to better grasp and treat what many of these refugees struggle with, and which the US and EU politicized climate of seeing them as an *enemy* only deepens, to the great detriment of a sanely functional future society. PTSD is one thing, such as a soldier’s war experience or a woman who is raped and gets support and help. C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) is another, and results from long term, inescapable exposure to trauma, such as a soldier who is tortured long term in a POW camp, or a child who grows up with seeing his parents killed and then hypervigilantly endures years of explosive suffering in, for example, Syria, and then endures more hopeless inescapable suffering seeking help from a modern world that angrily closes their doors to her.

    I'm offering the links here to help anyone coming by this article to better grasp the hidden suffering many of these refugees are surviving with, so they meet an open hand of compassion and help, rather than yet another angry fist into their innocent bodes and psyches.

    See the refugees in the same way you’d see a child on Main Street feeing from a serial murdering rapist who’d held her captive in his basement for years.

  • Thank you. I like your analogy about the feeling child......maybe that may be more relate-able to some people.

  • BTW, due to the issue with not being able to edit a comment under this particular article (works elsewhere); I was unable to edit-in the titles and brief descriptions to the 3 images in my comment above. They are links to specific places people can go to get more information about how to understand (and be with) the deep complex trauma, which many of our refugees are challenged by, and which is further deepened wherever these innocent victims meet lack of understanding or pure racism and xenophobic fear.

    So I’ll take the opportunity to do so in this comment.

    The first image takes you to the US Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, with a simple article for researchers, providers and helpers to better understand Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)

    The 2nd image takes you to a Psych-Central article that is specifically designed as a simple 3-minute read on C-PTSD. My reason for doing so is to demystify the Complex PTSD which many refugees are coming with; demystifying it so that it can mesh with our own empathies for people within our “safe” and modern societies who’ve been subjected to childhood horrors in the quaint suburbs of Americana or western Europe.

    The 3rd image, of a fog-bound farmhouse, takes you to a really unique article by “Welcome to Out of the FOG! Out of the FOG is an information site and support group offering help to family members and loved-ones of people who suffer from personality disorders.”

    And this specific page offers help and guidelines for how to be with -- and respond to -- people challenged by Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). This again is to demystify the difference many with a xenophobia will hold between that local girl “you” read about and immediately felt an appropriate anger towards the perpetrator, and empathy for the victim who’d been locked in a cellar for years, and subjected to rape, torture and the murder of others in that US urban cellar next door… and the refugee child knocking on “your” national door, who’s survived years of a predatory authority that is nothing less than enculturated serial raping, torture and murder.

  • Wow! Brilliantly articulate, Deborah. Very well written.

    If I may, please allow me to toss in some food for thought - In my mind, this is simply the first in what is going to be several major migrations of people over the next several decades. Once climate change kicks in and sea levels start to rise, you are going to see large scale movement of the population. So I try to gently tell folks "What you watch on TV today you might get to experience first hand soon."

  • Agreed- many are citing climate change impact of drought on the region to the political problems in Syria causing this refugee issue.