Much has been written over the past few days about the Jewish community’s history as a people that was turned away. We truly are a refugee people, and we can recall the times America, true to its values, welcomed us. We also recall the ghosts of Jews who are not here with us because America refused them. We have seen America at its best, and we have seen it at its worst. In fact, the very basis of the international system of refugee protection, the 1951 International Refugee Convention, rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and one of these dark times in American history. It was created as a commitment to “never again.”
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I was in Lesbos, Greece to meet with refugees, when I learned that U.S. President Trump had signed a heinous executive order halting refugee resettlement. Ironically, it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and back in the U.S., Trump was slamming America’s doors shut to those most in need of welcome and safety, betraying the values of our nation.
In Lesbos, where HIAS provides legal assistance to refugees seeking asylum, I met with people who had risked their lives and their families’ lives to escape persecution, violence, and death. They endured harrowing journeys from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Eritrea — the list is long. By foot, bus, and the back of vans, crossing borders, mountains, and deserts, surviving pernicious smugglers, extreme temperatures, suffocating box trucks, days without food, and often violent police or even torture, they arrived in Turkey. After difficult days, months or even years in some cases, they had reached the shores of Lesbos in notoriously dangerous dinghies.
One woman told me, in a voice barely above a whisper, how she and her family, fleeing unbearable violence in Syria, had experienced several failed attempts to cross the border into Turkey as police shot at her, her husband, and their one-year-old daughter. They were stuffed into the back of a truck, her daughter nearly suffocating; they were beaten and tear-gassed. It took three more attempts to make it across the waters to Greece. She is desperate to join her parents in Germany.
Mohammed, a Kurdish man from Syria, fled with his wife and two children to Lebanon in 2011, after enduring years of imprisonment and torture. When life as a Kurd became untenable in Lebanon in 2015, they escaped, walking for days and nights, to reach the Turkish coast. During an ordeal at sea lasting more than four hours, many drowned, but his family survived. His nine-year-old daughter relives the terror nightly.
I sat with a woman who fled her native Ivory Coast to a refugee camp in Ghana, after the government massacred her people. She was then forced to flee from Ghana when she was gang raped upon the discovery that she was a lesbian.
All three of these individuals have escaped persecution and violence, endured unimaginable journeys and loss and now sit waiting in the frigid Kara Tepe refugee camp for a safe place in which to begin to rebuild their lives. Their lives and the lives of their children hang in the balance.
As Jews, we have a mandate to welcome the stranger. The call echoing back to our experience as slaves in Egypt is central to how we understand ourselves as a people.
Refugees we welcome to the United States must go through a rigorous vetting process before ever setting foot on U.S. soil. In ignoring this, Trump is vilifying refugees just as America did in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews from Germany and Austria were deemed “security threats.”
What is too often lost in the debate about refugees is the sheer human life that is at stake. In Judaism, we believe that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The three people I had the opportunity to meet and the 65 million other refugees and displaced people who wander the earth are each a reflection of God. Each one of them is a human being in pain, suffering and longing for a safe place to live and raise their family. As Mohammed told me, “I will go to any country. I just want my children to go to school.”
This is truly a global crisis of proportions that are difficult to fathom. Greece is struggling to do its part, along with many nations of the world. But what America does matters more than we can imagine. We lead by example.
As Jews, we also have a special role to play, with outsized impact. We have a responsibility called by our tradition, but we also have a history that gives added power to our advocacy.
More than 1,900 rabbis, 260 synagogues and tens of thousands of American Jews have already declared that America must keep our doors open to refugees, and now we must be a powerful and relentless voice in opposition to the cruel executive orders which keep people from reaching safety on our shores.
Join us in the streets, in protest. Send President Trump a message, call your Members of Congress, meet with them in your district, engage locally. Your voice and your actions are needed now more than ever.
The United States I returned to, just a few short days after I had left, is not the same country. We must raise up our voices as Jews and Americans to demand that we return immediately to being a country that welcomes people fleeing for their lives, regardless of their national, ethnic, or religious background. Nothing less than the future of human life and the future of our nation is at stake.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is vice president for Community Engagement at HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.