This week I was struck by footage of a young Ukrainian couple mourning the killing of their 18-month-old child. The toddler’s body was wrapped in a blue blanket. The mother was hugging the child, saying her final goodbyes through tears, before tenderly covering the child’s face. It was such a powerful image of the pain of loss and the horror that any parent confronts when losing a child. By mid-week, we saw even more disturbing images of potential war crimes by the Russians in Ukraine. Photos of bodies in the streets, some shot at close range while bound, reveal the suffering that the Russians have unleashed on that nation. In the face of rising authoritarianism in the world, the Ukraine people are modeling just why democracies and international law are so important. The West faces challenges not only against the Russians, but also against China. And, given the fact that both countries are nuclear powers, the stakes of a Western response are extremely high. My hope is that the West continues to engage to end the war. Freedom-loving peoples need to stand up against this aggression.
The images also have me questioning how we as a school can respond. It is important to have conversations and educate our students about current events and try to give them some level of perspective. At Colorado Academy‘s recent Upper School PlatFORUM, I led two conversations about the history of Ukraine and its relationship to Russia. I shared with students the historic domination of Ukraine, including when Soviet leaders deliberately killed between 3.5 to 5 million Ukrainians in 1931 through mass starvation. During WWII, 12 percent of the Ukrainian population was killed. Nazis killed up to four million Ukrainians, including one million Jews targeted by Einsatzgruppen units. Our discussion included what happened at the end of the Cold War, and how, in recent years, Ukraine has reached out more to the European Union and NATO. The students and I also looked critically at Putin’s interventions in Chechnya, Crimea, Syria, and Eastern Ukraine, and we discussed how successive U.S. presidential administrations failed to address these violations. I taught them about the history of NATO, and we speculated on Putin’s current motivations. We also reviewed disinformation and propaganda, and talked about how, in times of crisis, there is often bi-partisan agreement about the U.S. response. Here’s a link to a PDF of my slide deck.
Years ago, my doctoral dissertation explored U.S. immigration and refugee policy during the Cold War. I think there are some relevant lessons. For countries in the Eastern Hemisphere, the U.S. had a racist immigration policy from 1924 to 1965 based on eugenics that favored Northern and Western Europeans. Whereas Great Britain would be assigned a quota of 65,000 immigrants, Hungary had only 865. Compared to the racial politics of today, Southern and Eastern Europe were not considered “white,” as they were not of Anglo-Saxon descent. And, both parties opposed mass immigration, with the Democrats actually controlling this issue in Congress. One Democratic leader complained of non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrants as “poisoning the bloodstream of America.” Asians were essentially banned during this period, as were Africans. During the Cold War, this created tremendous problems for America’s image abroad and impacted how the U.S. could respond to global events. Cold War warriors like President Eisenhower became advocates for liberalizing immigration law. In fact, Eisenhower used executive authority to bypass the quota system to admit 56,000 Hungarians after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, as he advocated for a more equitable and pluralistic immigration law.
Eventually, immigration law would be liberalized in 1965. Yet, the irony was the Democrats got rid of overt discrimination, but settled on a new way of trying to restrict African, Asian, and Southern and Eastern European immigration that had unintended consequences. They based the policy on family reunification, favoring immediate family members, thereby (in theory) sustaining Northern and Western European immigration. They failed to predict the impact of defeat in Vietnam and the influx of millions of Asian immigrants. They also failed to anticipate massive migration from Latin America. Those developments, combined with a steep decline in European migration in the 1970s and ’80s, fundamentally changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation. In fact, George H.W. Bush signed into a law a special “Diversity Immigration Bill” (introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy) that specifically created more space for the Irish, because so few could qualify under the family unification provisions of the 1965 Act.
Fast forward to today and a possible response to the war in Ukraine. One thing the West can do is support Ukrainian refugees. We have seen countries like Poland open their borders to those displaced by war. It is a very different response from how the world responded to the Syrian refugee crisis only years ago; and speaks to racialized fears of the Syrian people. The U.S. will likely do the same. During the Cold War, there were many high-profile refugee relief acts. These were both humanitarian gestures, but also part of Cold War strategy meant to embarrass the Soviet Union and demonstrate the evil nature of the regime.
Besides talking to your student about current events in Ukraine, there are also ways for individuals to take action. You could sponsor a refugee family, or help a family get settled in the U.S. Or, you could make donations to provide the Ukrainian people with medical relief. You can support various media outlets whose brave reporters are helping us to understand this conflict. There are organizations that specifically help refugee children. Here’s a great list from the CUT that might give you some inspiration.
I am hopeful the world can rally for freedom and peace, but sadly, there will be many more images of families saying goodbye to loved ones before peace prevails.