Opinion

Trump Has No Idea What a Syrian Refugee Camp Is Like. This Is What I Saw

Refugees brave incredible risks to save themselves, and in the worst cases their situation resembles imprisonment for nothing other than their ethnicity, national origin or citizenship. As Jews we must take this personally.

A Syrian refugee girl holds her younger sister while walking back to their shelter at the refugee camp of Ritsona about 86 kilometers (53 miles) north of Athens, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Sometime between when I first saw the videos of capsized boats and flailing refugees and that picture of a drowned two-year-old child, I decided I was going to quit my job as Deputy Director of J Street U and head to the refugee crisis in Greece. I googled around, found an organization called Echo100Plus that was providing food and clothes to refugees and was looking for volunteers, and I sent an email.

A few weeks after my partner and I decided to work in the refugee camps in Greece, I opened a letter at my Brooklyn apartment and out fell a check for $100. With the check came a note. “Dearest Jacob, I love you. Now take a big dose of common sense, and come home quickly. The world is too volatile for a loose cannon.  COME HOME. - Bubbe”

This was Bubbe’s analog contribution to our crowdfunding campaign, launched earlier that week, for our planned month-long trip. Reading Bubbe’s letter hurt a little. But it also made me laugh, because it’s in large part thanks to her stories that I went to Greece in the first place.

Like many Jews, it was only a couple of generations ago when my own ancestors fled war, discrimination and poverty. The intervening century has been a dash toward assimilation and away from our refugee past. As white Ashkenazi Jews, it’s been relatively easy for us. Bubbe's Memphis, TN ranch house is a shag-carpeted museum of the effort to reinvent ourselves, but tucked into a corner is a case of old Judaica. Recently I unlatched it for the first time. I pulled out Jewish ritual items and yellowing crispy photographs of my great-great grandfather and his brothers. One of my great-great uncles was a traveling rabbi, and his tools sit on the case’s bottom shelf. He carried these things with him as he fled Lithuania for America. I picked up his kosher slaughterer’s blade, as long as a sword and flat and reflective as a mirror.

So though their struggles were never as brutal, I thought of my own family when I met those trapped in the refugee camps. When I met my friend Amer, a very sweet 23-year-old former English literature major at Damascus University whose entire family was obliterated by a bomb. Or when Mohammad, a tailor from Aleppo, told me about when he was trapped at the Turkish border by a newly mined field, and only escaped when a landslide caused by a sudden storm cleared a mucky path through the mines. Or when I heard a hundred other less cinematic stories where families lose everything, and walk for days, and take a dangerous boat, and then land in Greece – only to be stranded.

Most of the refugees now in Greece now have been trapped in limbo for months. For some, especially in the north of Greece, life is unbearable. I saw horrible things: Shirtless men warming themselves by a burning couch, people with infections that swelled their limbs to double their normal size, single mothers with children living in dangerous abandoned factories.

Though most refugees are not in material danger, over the course of my time I watched their endless asylum limbo erode their minds. Some of my friends stopped sleeping or bathing. Some wouldn’t leave their tents for days on end. Others started fighting, or stealing or losing their memory.

My one-month stay would quickly become two, then three. I finally got back in December – about six months later. So naturally I’m having a pretty bad reaction to our new president’s decision to ban refugees from our country. Trump’s executive order condemns countless normal people across the world to this reality. Refugees brave incredible risks to save themselves and their families, and in the worst cases their situation resembles imprisonment for nothing other than their ethnicity, national origin or citizenship. As Jews we must take this personally.

Imagine if you heard that the American government had stalled evacuations from the German DP camps because Jews are dangerous and needed "extreme vetting."

I’m asked all the time, “what should I do about the refugees?” and in the past I’ve said donate, or find the refugee families in your locality and support them, or join a pro-refugee organization. And I think you should do all those things. But it’s not enough.

I’m not going to give you some line about “never again.” Because it is happening again. It is happening right now. So if you have the privilege to do so, go get out into the streets - like you wish more people had done for us.

Jacob Plitman is the former Country Director for Echo100Plus, an Austrian NGO providing food and essentials to refugees in Greece. He is an organizer, writer and tweeter @jacobplitman.