Leno speaks at a podium flanked by supporters with signs about welcoming refugees
State Sen. Mark Leno speaks at a refugee vigil in front of San Francisco City Hall, June 6, 2017 (Photo/Max A. Cherney)

Vigil at City Hall for refugees — past, present and future

In 1939, polls showed 61 percent of Americans did not want to admit even 10,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Apparently, little has changed: An Associated Press poll from March found that 52 percent still want to keep refugees out, this time Syrian Muslims fleeing a bloody civil war.

To counter the trend and vocalize their support for refugees, some 70 people gathered at a vigil on the steps of San Francisco City Hall this week. The June 6 event was organized by HIAS in partnership with local Jewish community organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav also sent a contingent.

The San Francisco vigil was part of a national effort by HIAS to organize more than 20 similar gatherings across the country, including in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Denver.

In San Francisco, as tech shuttles trundled by, some honking their horns in solidarity, politicians and religious leaders spoke in support of welcoming refugees into the United States.

Former state Sen. Mark Leno, who recently announced his candidacy for mayor of San Francisco, forcefully rejected the wave of anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment. Referring to President Donald Trump as “the new guy in the White House,” Leno chided the commander-in-chief, reminding him to recall the lessons of the past when it comes to refugees.

“Refugees have been with us forever, defined in international law or not,” Leno said. “But unfortunately, given the civil wars and the persecution and the poverty and the famines, we’ll see refugees for years to come. Add to that climate change, and we’ll have tens of millions of refugees in years to come.”

Today is a day to remember what it means to turn away refugees. It is a day to remember, to reflect and to be clear in our resolve.

In addition to drawing attention to the current refugee crisis, the vigil commemorated the 78th anniversary of the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis, an infamous incident that highlighted the dangers of ignoring the plight of refugees.

The St. Louis sailed from Germany on May 13, 1939, with a planned stop in Havana, Cuba, before reaching the United States. It carried 937 passengers, most of whom were Jewish refugees. After Cuban officials denied them entry, American officials did the same, rejecting their bid to come into the country. Most had no choice but to return to Europe. About half of the Jews on board died in the Holocaust.

As the sun descended behind City Hall’s gold-leafed dome, Vlad Khaykin of the ADL introduced other speakers. Among them were state Assemblyman David Chiu, Feras Alhlou of the Syrian American Council, Padmavathy Mana of the Hindu American Foundation and Jeff Sparks, district director for state Sen. Scott Wiener.

Sparks read a statement from Wiener: “Today is a day to remember what it means to turn away refugees. It is a day to remember, to reflect and to be clear in our resolve. Most importantly, it is a day to declare that we are not doomed to repeat our past mistakes but to learn from them … When you have a president whose instincts are to lash out at immigrant communities and refugees, to slander and vilify people as a way to shift blame or distract from the real problems our country faces, we must take a stand.”

Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco led a rendition of Psalm 23, as well as the funeral prayer El Malei Rachamim — in remembrance of the Jews on the St. Louis — and Kaddish.

“Friends, let us open our hearts,” Glazer said. “This darkness we’re experiencing is not new darkness. The psalmist in the 23rd Psalm speaks of this deep darkness, and that together we are able to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Added Leno, “We as a community need to figure out how to change the course of history or at least the direction it’s currently headed.”

Editor’s note: San Francisco-based Congregation Sherith Israel also contributed to organizing the vigil.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.