Inside the historic walls of Temple Emanu-el last week, New Yorkers remembered Mayor Koch as many things: a fighter, a politician, a man of candor and color, an amalgamation of the qualities that make this city great.
I will always remember Ed Koch as the man who saved my parents lives.
In 1972, my parents were two of the over 80,000 Indians living in Uganda, descendants of people moved there by Britain to help construct railroads decades earlier. The brutal dictator Idi Amin, who had seized power in 1971, gave Indians 90 days to leave the country or risk being shot on sight. This was no idle threat -- during the time when my parents were desperately searching for a way out, it was reported that the Ugandan army was murdering five Indians a day.
While most of the world paid little attention to this growing crisis, one member of Congress had the courage to stand up and demand that the State Department grant refugee status to these Ugandan Indians, people he had never met before; people who couldn't vote for him and who hadn't even heard of him. That man was Ed Koch.
While many opposed this move, citing anti-immigrant arguments that we still hear today -- that the U.S. should not grant refuge to these families because the unemployment rate was too high and that they would take away jobs from Americans -- Koch was undeterred. "I say that there is morality and Judeo-Christian ethic which requires us to extend our help to those that are in such great physical danger," he stated. "They will make contributions far surpassing the cost of the assistance that we extend at this time."
He continued, "But even if that were not the case, it would be incumbent upon us not to repeat the grievous sin which we committed in the late '30s and early '40s when we refused to permit Jews then able to leave Nazi Germany to come to this country and instead left them to perish."
On October 2, 1972 Koch's advocacy paid off when the State Department permitted entry of 1,000 Ugandan Asians to the United States. One month later, in a living room in Uganda my father opened his letter of acceptance. Two months later, he and my mother, who was pregnant with my sister, landed in Chicago to start their lives as Americans.
Ed Koch literally saved my parents lives, and he is the reason I am here today. While most of my extended family ended up scattered in refugee camps, my parents were able to find jobs and rebuild their lives as my sister and I attended public schools before going on to college and our careers. My sister grew up to be a doctor, and I became a lawyer and a public servant.
Most people will remember Ed Koch as a crusader for New York -- and he was -- but to me he will always be the person who saw a crisis, stood for his convictions and spoke out on behalf of refugees in a far away country because he knew it was right thing to do.