Reframing Refugees: Looking Beyond Borders in Champaign-Urbana

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The St. Louis

Perhaps you have heard of the Voyage of the St. Louis. On May 13th, 1939, a ship with 937 passengers aboard, predominantly Jewish, set sail from Hamburg en route to Havana. Among the 937 men, women, and children aboard, only a handful had a legal status that would permit them automatic entry upon arrival in Cuba; the rest were European citizens now stateless. They were refugees. The ship docked in Havana on May 27th and 28 passengers disembarked, while the rest were turned away immediately. The ship returned to sea shortly after and turned its rudders toward Florida in hopes that the borders would be more forgiving in the U.S. While hugging the coastline near Miami, eager to dock, the passengers radioed President Roosevelt for permission to enter the U.S., lest they be sent back to the ghettos and rounded up for deportation in Germany and Eastern Europe. Again, they were turned away, and left no choice but to return to Europe. As Jewish organizations became aware of this situation, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee contacted the governments in Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, who intercepted the St. Louis headed for Hamburg and permitted the entry of every refugee aboard. While the Jews that had arrived in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France faced German occupation and persecution in the following years, 287 of the 288 refugees that sought asylum in Great Britain survived the war. [Information made available by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]

Refusing Refugees

The politics of immigration are contentious, and this short narrative is an abbreviated version of a complex and convoluted history of policies, financial crises, and social unrest. That is to say, the politics of the story of the St. Louis are not so easily distilled and are terribly resonant in the current situation in the U.S., Europe, and Syria. It was undoubtedly a fact that both Cuba and the U.S. were reeling from the recent and devastating effects of the Great Depression, but the refusal to accept incoming refugees was most certainly also a symptom of a larger ailment of xenophobia breeding among citizens. This same brand of prejudice and intolerance, I fear, has permeated borders on state, national, and international levels today and has been permitted to run rampant in governmental structures and local communities in regards to the refugee crisis in Syria. The remedy for these symptoms will not be found in violence or vicious rhetoric, but in education and on platforms for discussion. This conversation is riddled with divisive questions and echoes with difficult answers, but there are no wrong questions. Why should we help? Don’t Americans have enough issues with unemployment and poverty already? How is employing emergency measures to accept refugees fair to other prospective immigrants on the waiting list? How would we bridge the language gap, find work for refugees, feed families, etc.? The truth is that there is no simple solution, but there is no productivity to be found in stagnation. We must begin by resisting the temptation to put price tags on human lives, by separating the disciplines of biology and economy, by returning to our humanity.


Rescue and Relief in Champaign-Urbana

Three Spinners Inc. is attempting to answer the pressing questions that have halted the U.S.’s development in accepting asylum-seekers and providing monetary aid to those living in unsustainable conditions. Far too many of us found ourselves on the wrong side of history in refusing asylum to those that would otherwise perish in ghettos, gas chambers, and camps in the case of the St. Louis. The right side of history is always the one that requires us to share our humanity with one another, regardless of the circumstances. Founded in January, 2016, Three Spinners Inc. is a charitable organization dedicated to providing rescue and relief efforts for Syrian refugees in addition to facilitating educational opportunities and vocational training. Our team is working to establish a self-sustaining community in Champaign-Urbana, independent of governmental funding, capable of providing housing, food, clothing, language training, and employment opportunities for incoming individuals and families. By hosting a series of food, clothing, and item drives and working alongside local businesses, residents, educational facilities, and other non-profit organizations, Three Spinners Inc. is creating an abundance of resources, both material and monetary, in the C-U area, which will be directed towards rescue and relief efforts. With nearly ten resident families who have applied to host a refugee family or individual in their homes, we are well on our way to achieving our goal of presenting Three Spinners Inc. and C-U to the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Immigration, and the nine voluntary agencies (VOLAGS) who place admitted refugees as a community prepared to accept as many refugees as we are able to support. More detailed explanations of our mission, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and refugee admission, housing processes, and volunteering opportunities are readily available on our website at

Get Involved

There are a number of ways to get involved in the refugee crisis, and we welcome any and all volunteers that are willing to lend their efforts in any capacity. Here are a few ways to help refugees right now:

  • Donate food, clothing, items, and/or furniture at a drop-off location in C-U
  • Donate funds to aid refugees
  • Volunteer to work /host a food or clothing & item drop-off location in C-U
  • Volunteer to host a food barrel for ongoing food drives
  • Volunteer to host an individual or family in your home for 3-12 months
  • Volunteer to teach special skills at a vocational training workshop
  • Volunteer to help sort, wash, and store clothing and goods collected at drives
  • Attend movie screenings and talk-backs hosted by Three Spinners Inc. to start a dialogue
  • Subscribe to our newsletter
  • Spread the word about the Three Spinners Inc. mission!

Screening of Red Lines

April 25th, 7pm @ Big Grove Tavern

Three Spinners Inc. will be hosting a screening of Red Lines, an award winning documentary that delves into the roots of the civil war in Syria and the plight of the refugee crisis that followed. Our screenings will continue to be held with the purpose of staying informed about the nature of the Syrian conflict and starting a productive conversation in our community so that we can better lend our efforts to providing assistance.

This screening will be followed by a talk-back with our board of directors and will be one of a series beginning this month and continuing on through the summer.  Light appetizers will be provided and wine, beer, and cocktails will be available for purchase. 


Alexandra van Doren is Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at UIUC as well as the Co-founder/CEO of Three Spinners Inc., a charitable organization dedicated to providing rescue and relief efforts for Syrian refugees.

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