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In 1939, the United States turned away 900 Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis fleeing Nazi Germany. The ship returned to Europe, where around 250 of its passengers died in concentration camps. Though their bodies were burned on European soil, their blood was on the hands of the Americans who refused them entry.

Now, history is repeating itself.

The first month of the Trump presidency has seen nativism and xenophobia sweep across the United States. The foremost expression of this fear was the executive order halting the United States’ refugee program for 120 days and indefinitely suspending the Syrian refugee program.

Syria is now in its sixth year of civil war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of war in 2011. We are facing a decision today similar to the one we faced in 1939. 

Now is one of those times when America has the chance to define itself. What are we for? Or better, who are we for?

Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus: “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.”

America must answer the call to the “tempest-tost” as we have bitterly failed to do thus far. Let us not repeat the lessons that history has taught us. As in 1939, the United States today has both the means and the opportunity to provide aid. This is a time when we must put humanity before America, personhood before nationhood. If America is to truly become great, then we must cling to these words and embark on a journey of selfless vulnerability. Our capacity to resist tyranny depends directly on our willingness to shelter those who flee it.

Princeton: Let us not take lightly that we are tomorrow’s leaders. Not only that, but many of us have the opportunities to rub shoulders and have conversations with the leaders of today. We sit in one of the most privileged positions in the world — attending the top university in the nation brings with it responsibility, just as the United States’ position as a global power does. You have spent your entire lives being told that you can change the world. Now change it.

Jack Bryan is an English major from Lindenhurst, Ill. He can be reached at jmbryan@princeton.edu.

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