By Michelle Nunn
The saying goes that those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it. But I fear that people who aren't familiar with one remarkable chapter in American history will be doomed not to repeat it. And it bears repeating.
This chapter launched from right here in Philadelphia in the wake of World War II, when the cargo ship American Traveller left carrying 15,000 boxes of food for families clinging to survival in war-torn Europe. The shipment had been organized by a new humanitarian group called CARE. And exactly 70 years ago this week, on May 11, 1946, those boxes - the world's first CARE packages - were distributed at Le Havre, France.
Over the next two decades Americans would send more than 100 million CARE packages to people in need all over the world. Many of them were assembled, fittingly, in the City of Brotherly Love, in a warehouse at Pier 38 on the Delaware River.
Today the term care package is part of the American vernacular. But most people don't know its history, according to a new Harris Poll conducted on behalf of CARE. The online poll of more than 2,100 American adults found that while 84 percent of respondents were aware of the phrase care package and 60 percent had either sent or received one, only 13 percent knew the term's roots.
Now is the time to recapture the spirit of the CARE package. There are nearly 60 million refugees around the world, the most since World War II. Many are risking their lives in search of a better future for their families. The scale can leave people numb, unable to see clearly how to help.
And that's exactly where the CARE package helps. It embodies, in a single box, the instinct one feels to help another in need. But we have to learn its history, something I realized last year as I took the helm at CARE. My 80-year-old Auntie Betty told me about my own family's ties to CARE, a story I had never heard before. My grandmother, a Girl Scout leader in Middle Georgia, had led her troop in sending a CARE package to a little girl in France. What struck me most was that after all these years, Aunt Betty still remembers the girl's name: Marie Francois Brune.
We at CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) channeled the power of the CARE package earlier this year by asking original recipients - once child refugees themselves - to write letters to Syrian children whose families have fled to Jordan. Helga Kissell, 87, of Colorado Springs, wrote Sajeda, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee. Helga's letter described the hardships she overcame in Germany, having lost her father in an air raid, then her home and everything she owned. "Always remember the good times," she wrote to Sajeda, "and look forward to what the future may bring."
Upon reading the letter, Sajeda broke into tears. She recalled hiding in her attic the day her parents said it was time to flee the bombing. And even after leaving, Sajeda said it felt like she had left herself in Syria - until that letter arrived from a stranger in America who had received a CARE package as a girl. "Helga," Sajeda said through tears, "made me feel like I exist."
After reading the letters written by Helga and other original package recipients, more than 1,200 people have submitted their own messages of hope and solidarity to Syrian refugees at care.org. Many also donated one of today's CARE packages - grocery debit cards that allow refugee families to buy the foods they need. This is even better than sending a box because there's no money lost in transportation, and the grocery cards support the local economy.
It's heartening to see the CARE package spirit spreading. But we have to do more. The Syrian conflict has displaced more people than any since World War II. Yet the humanitarian response there and in neighboring countries remains woefully underfunded. And Syrian refugees haven't exactly received a warm embrace from many parts of America. Instead, how we handle refugees has grown into a divisive issue.
In looking back at our own history, CARE recently discovered a Philadelphia Evening Bulletin political cartoon from 1948. It featured an angry-looking crowd of people and the words "Political, economic and national differences" rising from all of the pointing and shouting.
The cartoon's title, "Above the Bickering," referred to what sat in the palm of a giant hand extended out over the angry crowd.
It was a CARE package.