Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free: Emma Lazarus and the Refugee Crisis

Posted by Beatrice on 16th Feb 2018

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"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 can't remember when I first became aware of these lines, written by Emma Lazarus and inspired by her sympathy for refugees fleeing the violence of the Russian pogroms.

They're engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. That statue was the first thing immigrants and refugees saw as they arrived in the US, many of them through Ellis Island, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These words are without doubt as relevant today in 2018 as when they were written in 1883. Liberty herself is described in the poem 'The New Colossus' as "a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES."

Lady Liberty, the mother of exiles 

Refugees and asylum seekers have aways been compelling topics for me since my mother first told me and my siblings about the Holocaust back in the 1960s.

We went on to devour those old black and white films and Pathe News documentaries about the Nazi death camps, and to read the 'Diary of Anne Frank', and 'I am David' by Ann Holm.

Years later, while te
aching in Poland in my early twenties, I visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp for myself.

Later still, in my forties I emerged blinking into the sunlight onto the pavement outside the Imperial War Museum where I had spent several hours in the Holocaust Exhibition.

I was struck dumb with what I had just witnessed, the horror of those days, aghast at what people can do to their fellow human beings.

I was sick to the core to read British newspaper articles of the time in one exhibit warning the country against taking in Jewish refugees. Tears flowed.

Refugee intolerance is no new phenomena 

We like to kid ourselves that tolerance is a distinctly British trait, but most people have no idea that refugees back in the 1930s were treated with the same rabid intolerance by the British right-wing press as they are now.

The Kindertransport is the heroic part of a very unheroic story. If you read press cuttings from those times you would see no difference in attitude to refugees compared to the tabloid newspapers of 2018.

The Daily Mail for example has been anti-alien in tone since the 1900s and has not changed its tune one bit.

Yet, it is also worth noting that Jewish refugees from the past are today considered to be 'genuine' whereas refugees from our own time are not. Chillingly, the 'asylum seeker', as they are now more often labelled, is seen as virtually non-existent today and current bigotry against them closely mimics the pre-war anti-Jewish feeling which has been legitimised by British government policy against immigrants ever since.

Reading this Daily Mail headline from 1938: "GERMAN JEWS POURING INTO THIS COUNTRY", with its warning of aliens entering through the back door, you might well be reminded of the more recent Calais refugee crisis.

Today's urgent refugee crisis 

In 2015 my nephew, Tom, inspired by the famous image of Aylan Kurdi's lifeless body on a Turkish beach, went out to the Calais Jungle as a volunteer and then later to Moria Camp on Lesbos, going on to write a blog post on his experiences.

Here he relates first hand accounts of refugees he spoke to, the Afghani man, the Syrian boy and others all simply seeking safety and a better life. You can read more about his travels on our old blog.

It was the news stories of 2014-15, ranging from the mean-spirited bile of the Daily Mail and Express flung at me on social media, to the the heart-breaking stories of suffering and loss shown nightly on Channel Four News, that affected me.

The horrific images of those "tempest-tossed" refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean in pathetic rubber dinghies or crowded into freezing, makeshift tents in Calais.

It was "the wretched refuse" of that "teeming shore" who persuaded me, as they had my nephew, that the Radical Tea Towel Company should first of all raise money with a crowdfunding campaign to help buy UNHCR tents and secondly make annual donations to Refugee Action.

Whilst I was thinking about a possible design for a Refugee tea towel to set this process in motion, the Emma Lazarus poem came to me and for some reason a silhouette of a refugee family against an orange sunset also appeared in my mind's eye.

Here was our starting point and I duly handed my idea over to our designer (my husband!), Tim:

A call to action 

The tea towel he came up with was an instant hit with our customers, as was the mug we went on to create, pledging to give £1 to Refugee Action for each one we sold.

Then last year, we gave over five hundred pounds to CRIBS International, a charity helping refugee mothers in Greece.

We'll soon be launching our 2018 charity giveaway, and I hope you'll consider voting for us to donate to refugee charities as well as the fight for equality at home in the UK.

So here we are already one month into a new year. Will 2018 be a better year for refugees than previous years? Who knows?

But we started the year with somewhere in the region of 65 million people worldwide who were displaced from their homes, equiva
lent to the 21st biggest nation on earth.

We would all do well to remember that these people are not just a statistic, an uncomfortable figure for us to consider and then shelve, but human beings, just like us, who want a normal life, who have the same hopes and fears as all of us, who want to contribute and want to give something back to society.

I believe all of us who live privileged lives have a duty to help in some small way.

And for me that means challenging racism and bigotry; it means sticking your neck out, questioning received wisdom and trusting the small voice of conscience rather than the manipulative fake news which bombards us daily and exhorts us to consider so many of our fellow human beings as 'the other' and less deserving of our compassion.

Let us all do as Lady Liberty asks of us and ensure that from our "beacon-hands glows world-wide welcome."