Peter Klein is director of the Global Reporting Centre, which has just launched the Strangers at Home project, about xenophobia in Europe.
Like so many other refugees, Frigyes snuck across the Hungarian border with nothing more than the possessions he could hold. He, and his brothers and sisters, made their way across the European continent, arriving on the shores of North America after a long, arduous journey.
The year was 1956, and the Hungarian Revolution was in full swing, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees like my father Frigyes westward for safer and better lives. They were welcomed by the governments of Canada and the United States, with Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and President Dwight D. Eisenhower loosening restrictions to admit the wave of immigrants.
That's not the case today. Even before the Paris attacks, there was apprehension about accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees in Western countries. Since last weekend's shootings and bombings, more than half of all U.S. governors have claimed their states will not accept Syrians, out of fear that some may be terrorists. Some Canadian premiers have expressed similar apprehension, with Brad Wall of Saskatchewan writing directly to the Prime Minister, suggesting that even an infinitesimal chance of a security risk from these refugees was unacceptable.
Prime Minister Trudeau says he is sticking with his campaign promise to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year.
U.S. President Obama has likewise re-affirmed his support of the refugees. Several of the Republican presidential candidates have voiced grave concern about opening the door to any new Syrian Muslim immigrants – but have suggested it could be reasonable to allow in Christian Syrians. They seem to be unaware of the fact that some of the most notorious Palestinian terrorists have been Christians. Or maybe they just realize that this kind of religious bigotry is a great applause line.
An obvious difference between the wave of Syrian refugees today and Hungarian refugees six decades ago is race and religion, but it is a minor one.
Eastern European immigrants with their strange names and thick accents – many of them Jewish, like my dad – were not exact the right kind of "whites" that were welcomed at country clubs. Just a few years before, at the end of World War II, the majority of American opposed allowing people like my dad into the country. But by the fifties, they had politics on their side. The Hungarian migration played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and accepting these refugees was another strike at the Soviets and a victory for the West.
Behind the patina of patriotism, it was a different story. When an anti-Semitic fellow refugee on the ship over to America decided to cause trouble by making up an absurd story that my father was a spy, the FBI opened a case and put my family under surveillance for a decade. In the heightened climate of fear at the time, the slightest hint of suspicion was enough to catalyze a shift in thinking about the strangers at our borders.
The November 13 Paris attack was a modern-day catalyst, on a massive scale. According to Islamic State propaganda videos, Syrian refugees are seen as the ultimate traitors, worse than Western infidels, since they are abandoning the pure theocratic regime IS is building, for a life of apostasy in Europe and North America. A falsified Syrian passport was found on the body of one of the suicide bombers, and some intelligence officials suspect it may have been planted to cast suspicion on refugees and help derail the flow of Muslims fleeing the Middle East.
Just months ago, Europeans were cheering at train stations as Syrians arrived – the Paris shooting and bombings quickly put an end to that. Like those fearful provincial and state leaders in North America, politicians throughout Europe are now expressing concern about admitting more refugees.
When the Berlin Wall came down, the borders in Hungary that my father had braved decades ago came down too – we thought, for good. But Hungary has brought back the concertina fence to keep Syrians out. So have many other countries in Europe.
The voices that want to deny desperate Syrians refuge are giving IS exactly what they want. Each unfurled roll of barbed wire is another victory for the terrorists.