I’m nearly 100 years old, I saw the 1945 refugee crisis firsthand – listen to my warning


Source: The Independent

I want my memories to be a testament of what must not happen again, especially when it comes to the treatment of those who flee their countries because of war or persecution.

As the northern hemisphere wends its way into summer, my sense of calm has been broken by the anguished cries of refugees the world over who have been denied their human right to a life free of war or poverty. Maybe it’s my advanced age and knowing that I will be dead soon that makes me angry and resolved not to remain quiet.

I cannot sit back in good conscience while the world my generation built is left to turn feral in the hands of right-wing populists and indifferent capitalists. Too many people died and too many lives were cut short or mangled by the Great Depression and the Second World War for me to accept that the architecture of fascism being built by Donald Trump along with demagogues in Europe and Asia should be allowed to go unchallenged.

I am a very old man whose only weapon is that I have endured the catastrophic history of the 20th century and I am not afraid to tell younger generations what I saw and experienced in my youth. I want my memories to be a testament of what must not happen again, especially when it comes to the treatment of those who flee their countries because of war or persecution.

So even though I am close to 100 years old, I travelled two days ago to Ottawa because I think Canada has shown leadership when it comes to the current refugee crisis. I came to meet with Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts because I wanted to explain why, at the age of 95, I am making the refugee crisis my last stand.

In this meeting I was asked how my journey towards refugee advocacy started. For me, it began near dusk on a day near the end of April 1945 when my RAF unit made camp close to the Dutch-German border.

In the distance, artillery rumbled, sounding to my ear like thunder did when it struck the moors, miles from my mother’s one-up-one-down house in an ugly part of Halifax. The fragrance of spring flowers coming into bloom jarred against the remnants of war that surrounded me, from burnt-out German vehicles to the bloated corpses of horses that lay at the side of the roadway.

All of Europe ached from the pain of battle, hunger, injury, loss, and death. We were a generation bleeding out from the madness of fascism that had butchered a continent. Humanity, however, hadn’t deserted my generation even if the war had stolen our innocence.

That’s why, on that night, when scores of refugee children came to our perimeter fence enticed by the smell of stew that cooked on our camp stoves, we didn’t turn our backs on those children, like so many well-fed people do today in Europe and America. No, we fed them, played with them and gave them a safe place to kip until the Red Cross arrived and took them to safety.

I look back and think how different life was because all we wanted was the right to grow old in dignity under the umbrella of a welfare state. Think about it: out of the ashes of the Second World War, the United Nations was conceived and the declaration for human rights written, enacted and for decades held as sacred and inviolable. Whereas from the funeral pyre of the Iraq War was born the furies of Isis and total destabilisation in the Middle East.

In this era we live in grotesque inequality and ignorance. Populism and fascism ride about the world stage like a victorious sports team in a city parade. The United States under Donald Trump cages refugee children, pulls out of the UN Council and uses dehumanising terms about other races; doing so has, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, always been a harbinger of genocide.

In Italy, a new government coalition comprising a right-wing faction which would make Mussolini proud bars the refugee rescue ships that trawl the Mediterranean Sea searching the waters for desperate souls who left Africa in boats that wouldn’t be safe to punt down the river in Maidenhead. These men, women and children make this crossing because staying in their home countries means certain death, perpetual rape or devastation from economies that only benefit the wealthy.

Even worse, the interior minister in Italy is drawing up lists like Nazis of old against the Roma to deport them from their nation’s borders, making them eternal refugees.

Most disturbing to me are the people I encounter every day who have food in their bellies, a job to go to and holidays to eagerly await, and yet they judge refugees who have endured horrible privations as corrupt swindlers. They in their selfish, racist myopia become a tide of malevolence that drowns the aspirations of too many people who have on an individual level suffered the same horrors as people in the death camps of the Nazis or the gulags of Stalin.

Right now, there are 64 million people the world over who are displaced. They are either living in squalid camps or fleeing for their lives over dangerous terrain, looking for sanctuary in western countries who are ignoring the warning signs of this crisis with same tenacity as the ancient people of Pompeii ignored the rumblings of Vesuvius.

It’s why at 95, I cannot be silent any longer about this growing threat to humanity’s survival. I am spending the little time I have left to live on earth travelling the world to visit refugee camps, government leaders and ordinary people to try to end this madness.

There is a good chance because of my age that I will die on my travels, but I am not worried about my end. I am more worried about the end of a world that believes that all human beings have a right to peace and prosperity, not just the entitled few.

We cannot let the candle of civilisation be blown out by the likes of Donald Trump, which is why, to resist him, you must in your way help end the refugee crisis. So I ask you to flood your government representatives with letters, emails and tweets in support of refugees – because it is only the slender thread of fate that separates our destiny from theirs.

Harry Leslie Smith is the author of ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’, published by Little Brown


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