Helping Refugees: Effect or Display?

As a sometime lifeguard with a few saves to my credit, I know that I can go into the water and pull a drowning person out. I’ve done it. I also know that it’s harder than people think. A drowning man will literally try to climb my body to get another breath. If I let him, I drown. And then he drowns anyway. 

I know I’m better off throwing him a rope or a float or one end of my shirt or *anything* he can grab onto than I am trying to grab him — it’s safer for both of us. But if I haven’t got anything handy, I’ll go in and get him anyway, risk be damned — I’m not going to sit on shore and watch the guy drown when I can do something about it. I can handle one guy trying to climb me. I’ll have to fight him to save him, but I’ll win, and we’ll both come out of the water alive.

I know I can’t go in and get three people at once. I can’t manage that many panicky people at the same time. They’ll climb me, and we’ll all die — or some other lifeguard will have to work that much harder to save them and me, too. Hard as it is to not just dive into the water, we’re all better off if I take the time to grab a float or a rope or branch. The goal is not just to “do something,” the goal is to actually help — effect, not display. When I spend precious seconds rummaging for a rope, one of them might go under for the last time. That’s awful.  But saving two is better than playing hero for a few seconds and drowning all four of us.

I believe in helping the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. How many can we absorb into our country before our country — like theirs — becomes a place to flee from instead of a place to flee to? The answer cannot be zero, but as the experience of Europe is presently  demonstrating, the number will not be infinite, either. If we want real results and not just the warm feeling that we’re “doing something,” then we will have to accept two hard realities: 

1. There’s an upper limit to how many people we can help at a time.
2. There are ways of helping that will work, although they’re harder, and other ways that will fail, even though they will feel good and look heroic at first. We need to learn to tell the difference.


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