Saturday, March 8, 2014

April 17, 1939: Talk English Please

Mr. Reed Cary
Director, Refugee Division
American Friends Service
20 S. 12th St.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dear Mr. Cary,

I am a student at Cornell College and am heading a committee that is investigating the possibility of providing means for enrolling a refugee student here as a member of our student body next September. Your name was referred to me by Miss Sara Pemberton of West Branch, Iowa. 

Cornell College is located about 24 miles from West Branch, Iowa and the Scattergood Academy. Due to the fact that we are so close we are aware of what your church group is doing in respect to this very acute and pressing refugee problem. This committee which I am heading is investigating the possibility of doing something to help some poor student who is a victim of German prosecution. At the present time this committee is working without the direct consent of the student body but with the approval of the college administration. The reason for this is that we want to clear up several difficulties before presenting it to the student body and asking their support and approval. That is my reason for writing to you. 

The one thing we would like to know is if there is any way in which we could co-operate with you and your Scattergood project by taking some student for a year on our campus. We cannot hope to be able to secure enough funds to bring a student to Mount Vernon from New York or Germany but we think we can provide means for furnishing such a refugee student with room and board and tuition for a full school year. The information I would like to have is if you would be willing to send us such a student either directly here or to the Scattergood Academy and then here at Cornell. If we have your word that you could send us a student and would be willing to be responsible for him during the summer months we can then present the proposition to our student body and ask for their support. We do not want to do so until we are sure of being able to get a student out here who is backed by some responsible organization, for all we can possibly hope to offer is the minimum expenses for one full school year. I hope that I have made myself clear.

The type of student we want is one who is willing to mingle and be a part of our campus. We would not make him feel as if he were being given charity for he would probably have to work some. He or she would have to talk English and be a positive personality. We would like one who would be willing to give us knowledge of continental Europe and culture. I would be very pleased to hear from you soon in respect to this matter.

Very truly yours
Howard Johnson

Before we get too far into this letter, let me disappoint you: this is not the Howard Johnson of the Howard Johnson hotels. Not even related (that we can see), trust me- we really tried hard to connect them. And it was near impossible to find the real Howard Johnson, as his name is so common. Alas- this is an ordinary Howard from Cornell College who is asking questions about refugee students. But that’s kind of the cool part about all of this- most of the people doing the hard work of helping refugees are ordinary folks who are willing to try. One more clarification: this is Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa- a private liberal arts school, not to be confused with the ivy league school, Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

Cornell College is geographically close to Scattergood Academy, a sort of hostel/school set up by the Quakers as a way-station for refugee students in America. Howard Johnson wonders if his school could perhaps engage with the work of the Quakers in helping refugees. His heart is certainly in the right place. It seems that he meets a little resistance from the college community, and is looking for some reassurance and encouragement from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

First, Johnson offers Cornell as a potential place for a student to study for a year on their campus. He is clear in his explanation of the ability of Cornell college to help- they can’t provide the expenses of travel, but if the student gets there- they can at least support them for one school year.

Second, Johnson clarifies the kind of student they are interested in: one who is willing to mingle, work, “talk English,” be “positive,” and share about their European culture.

I hate to point out the irony of a letter with a few grammatical errors asking for a European who is proficient in English. It shows us how even when willing to help, people are afraid of what they don’t know. This is a student in Iowa- not exactly the most diverse corner of the world. I am glad to know that this letter was sent to the AFSC headquarters- where they understand not only the plight of the refugees, but also the learning curve of those who have never stepped foot outside their home state, much less country. The AFSC workers are often courteous, informative, and direct in such a way that helps calm the fears and educate the helpers so that they are more willing and excited to help a refugee.

All that said, my heart aches for the refugees who couldn’t fit the bill of “normal enough” to get help. The ones who were not smart enough, educated enough, friendly enough, lucky enough. Would I make the cut if I had to go to another country? I only speak English.

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