A mother's reminder to speak up for refugees

March 29, 2002|By Helen Schary Motro

NEW YORK - I am the daughter of a former United Nations refugee.

In my desk drawer lies my mother's Displaced Person's ID card signed by a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) officer in Gauting, Germany in 1947. Having survived the war in Poland, her parents slaughtered and her world in Warsaw annihilated, by default my stateless and penniless mother made the DP camp her home.

But within a year, she had received a U.S. visa. And by 1952 she was a naturalized U.S. citizen. I was born in New York, the American child of American citizens, far removed from the tangential existence of a stateless person in a relief camp. Yet my mother's refugee card remains, a historical document for our family. There are still millions today who hold one as their only identity document.

DP camps came to life from stories my mother told. But several years ago, I visited a U.N. refugee camp still very much in the present tense, near Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, now part of the Palestinian Authority.

It was my last stop after a day of nature hiking through a breathtaking desert gorge and visiting a Greek Orthodox monastery functioning for the last 1,500 years. But the most forceful images of that day were the barefoot children who ran to surround me, holding out their hands, happy for a stick of gum or a single candy.

I'd like to go back to a Palestinian refugee camp, to take in with my own eyes what I have seen on TV: the hodgepodge of crowded shanties, the household wastewater running down the streets, the impoverished windows and doors. Above all, I would like to witness the people who live there.

The old ones, aged like my mother now, sitting in courtyards in the sun thinking back on all they lost. The children, now middle-aged, brought up to think they were in a temporary home, which became a trap they could never leave. And their children, who took to the streets in reckless anger in the first intifada in 1987. Those first intifada children are now also grown up. Some already have small children throwing stones or being themselves hit by bullets - a fourth generation of U.N. refugees.

But I can no longer set foot in such a camp. Not for the last 18 months, since the current violence began. Maybe not ever.

Of course, I support finding a solution for their plight. But most of the time, I do not think of them - except when I open my desk drawer looking for a fresh diskette, or my box of Picasso note cards, and I am stopped by my mother's yellowed refugee card. Then I am reminded of those who still have no passport, no right to travel, no public libraries, no swimming pools, no museums and no illusions that they hold control of their lives. Of those who'll never have a chance to ride a train or have a newspaper delivered to their door.

A lot hangs on the unexplainable - like my mother being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto for not wearing a yellow armband and then let go because one humane policeman took pity on her. The historical parallels between Jews and Palestinians are not equal. But as the child of a former U.N. refugee, I cannot get off with saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."

At Passover, the caveat of my religion reverberates: Every Jew must consider himself as having been delivered out of slavery in Egypt. But what about the inevitable corollary - the moral imperative not to abandon those whom destiny has not yet rescued?

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and free-lance writer who divides her time between New York and Israel, is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

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