“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
So reads the last stanza of The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which is inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty in Upper New York Bay.
Close to Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States, the statue famously welcomes those seeking to start new lives in this country.
Juxtapose that ideal with the reality related in today’s page 1 story “From machine gun belts to bed bug welts” about the living conditions of many of the more than 1,000 Afghan refugees who have settled in Alexandria since the U.S. military pullout from that country more than two years ago.
The images of that chaotic exodus are unforgettable: a rescue plane packed with people of all ages; desperate Afghans clinging to – and some falling to their deaths from – the outside of a plane; Afghans crushed trying to enter the Kabul airport or killed, along with U.S. soldiers, in an explosion at its gates.
Virtually every family had a member who assisted the United States in some way during its occupation of Afghanistan following Osama bin Laden’s use of that country as a base from which to launch the September 11 attacks – which took place 22 years ago next week. Most of those who made it out left with nothing more than the clothes they wore.
These people and their families were at risk of being retaliated against, tortured or killed at the hands of the Taliban if they had stayed. Sadly, not everyone who helped the U.S. made it out.
It’s difficult to imagine a group of people who were more deserving of refuge on our shores.
Yes, those who reached the U.S., including the people depicted in the Times story, are fortunate to be here. A rat or bed bug bite certainly isn’t as bad as facing the Taliban.
But what does it say about us, and the ideal expressed in the Statue of Liberty and Lazarus’ poem, that we bring refugees here and subject them to these conditions?
It’s also important to note that, despite our investigation, we don’t believe that any of what we described in the story was deliberate.
Certainly Lutheran Social Services, which does great good around the world, has helped many refugees over many years relocate to Northern Virginia. Their CEO strongly implied in an interview with the Times that their options for placing refugees are limited.
The organization Resettling Afghan Families Together – which has helped many Afghan families locate furniture for their new homes, and has tutored them and helped them find jobs – is a remarkable nonprofit with a core cadre of dedicated volunteers.
And even Morgan Properties, which owns a series of rodent and bedbug infested buildings in Alexandria, is still not a villain. Refugees come to this country without credit ratings or money in hand and often without jobs. Meeting the refugees’ basic need for shelter by taking a risk on the newcomers’ ability to pay rent is actually noble in its intent.
However, the discrepancy between Morgan Properties’ self-congratulatory language on their website and the reality within several of their Alexandria buildings would be laughable if it weren’t so repugnant.
It’s ultimately up to the city’s code enforcement staff, and the Alexandria Health Department, to hold Morgan Properties accountable. While getting rid of rodent and bug infestations, particularly in large buildings, is difficult, it’s not impossible.
Frequent inspections and strict fines should compel the extensive, ongoing effort necessary to eliminate these infestations. We owe that assistance to the people who aided us in Afghanistan during our country’s 20 long years there.