The Biggest Surprise for Jews Taking in Syrian Refugees? What They Have in Common

With an estimated 22.5 million refugees worldwide, these Jewish families and organizations in the Diaspora are recognizing the imperative to be kind to the stranger, no matter what their religion

Simon and Shoshana Goldhill, Faraj Alnasser and Sarah Goldhill at the family home in Cambridge, southern England.
UNHCR / Aubrey Wade

Shoshana and Faraj were halfway through the 15-minute walk from the train station to her home when she felt compelled to say something. “I have to tell you straight off, we’re Jewish,” she told the young man about to live with her family.

Faraj, 22, who had escaped Aleppo and the Syrian civil war four years earlier, smiled: “That’s amazing, I’ve never met anyone Jewish before.”

In a sudden burst of honesty, he added, “And I just have to tell you – I’m gay.”

It was the first time he’d ever told anyone that. “That’s fantastic,” she replied, much to his relief.

Shoshana and Simon Goldhill, from Cambridge, England, are among the Jewish families and organizations worldwide who are helping those seeking refuge and asylum.

“You should be kind to the stranger because you were a stranger: it’s a pretty straightforward principle,” says Simon. “If people forget that, they should be ashamed of themselves,” adds the Greek Classics professor whose family has been hosting Faraj Alnasser for the past 18 months.

Syrian refugees and migrants at the Greek-Turkish border in January 2016. The UN refugee agency says there are now 22.5 million refugees in the world.
Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Since he left Syria, Alnasser has been rejected by his own family, experienced homelessness and hunger after his father kicked him out of their new home in Egypt, and was forced into a boat at gunpoint by smugglers. After crossing Europe, mostly by foot, he finally received refugee status in England. Through an organization called Refugees at Home, in 2016 he found his way to the Goldhills.

Now, Faraj has become an integral part of this devout Jewish family – accompanying them to synagogue, helping the local rabbi and preparing Shabbat meals. He does this while maintaining his own Muslim faith, praying five times a day and going to the mosque.

“I feel like I’m part of them, I don’t know what I’d do without them,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview. He reveals how the Goldhills’ daughter, Sarah, has become a best friend and sister, and how they’ve financially enabled him to continue the schooling that was abruptly cut short in Syria.

“Feeling I’m with a family again makes my life amazing. I have meaning in my life having someone to talk to,” he says. “Even in the morning, I just go to the kitchen, and to have somebody say ‘Good morning’ or smile in my face ... how beautiful is that?”

Welcoming is key

In the United States, meanwhile, David Lubell has been working with over 200 American towns and cities to integrate immigrants and refugees, in safe and accommodating ways that also benefit the local community.

David Lubell receiving the Charles Bronfman Prize in New York, April 30, 2018.
William Stanton

Welcoming America, the organization he established back in 2009, works with community leaders to adopt inclusive policies, creating direct contact between locals and newcomers. He communicates the positive impact that immigrants and refugees have, delivering the message via billboards and social media.

The group also expends time and energy identifying institutional barriers, masterminding policies that turn cities from Nashville to Anchorage into more welcoming places.

“Immigrants and refugees are often seen as a burden, but we help communities demonstrate it’s actually an economic benefit,” explains Lubell. “Hostility is on the rise against immigrants and refugees, but there’s also been an outpouring of support. Welcomers have come out of the woodwork in this hostile environment more than ever before.”

Alaa (Haaretz has his last name), who fled Damascus in 2012, was resettled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he now owns a bakery that produces pita bread. His integration into the community through the Mosaic Project – a member of Welcoming America – was smooth thanks to local city officials and institutions.

“I didn’t know English or the rules and how things work. But everyone was patient and showed me the way, step by step,” Alaa tells Haaretz. “I got a lot of support from the city. That’s why I’m committed to stay in the city and support it the way they supported me.”

This week, Lubell’s work was recognized when he received the Charles Bronfman Prize – an annual award of $100,000 presented to humanitarians under 50 whose work, informed by Jewish values, has significantly improved the world. “What he’s doing is making immigrants assets to a community rather than a liability,” billionaire businessman-philanthropist Bronfman said, presenting the prize to Lubell in New York on Monday.

The epicenter of immigration

Now, a decade into his work in the United States, Lubell is about to become an immigrant himself. Recognizing that immigration and welcoming is an international issue, he is taking his family and work to Berlin this July for Welcoming International – hoping to expand his success to Europe and the rest of the world.

“It’s very meaningful as a Jew, as a Jewish American, to be able to help Germany be a model of something very positive,” Lubell says. “I admire what they’re doing. I wish the United States would take in even a fraction of the refugees Germany is taking in,” he adds, calling Germany the epicenter of the global industrialized “welcoming community.”

There are currently some 22.5 million refugees in the world, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. German Interior Ministry figures show that more than 1.3 million people have been registered as asylum seekers in Germany since 2015. The United States, meanwhile, has admitted 165,000 refugees during that time, with The Economist reporting last month that it is on track to resettle its fewest number of refugees in four decades (20,800) this year.

A Syrian woman feeding her baby at a refugee centre in Hamm, Germany, September 2015.
\ Ina Fassbender/ REUTERS

In Berlin, Israeli-German Yoni, his husband and their dog share their apartment with Syrian Kamel (not their real names), in the diverse Neukölln neighborhood.

“Through activism and being in anti-racist groups, and even from being gay, you meet a lot of people. It’s easier to create bonds with them than with the Germans many times – we’re both migrants, both freaked out about German weirdnesses,” Yoni laughs.

When Yoni met a group of Syrian musicians in 2016, he decided to rent out a room to one of them. The gentrification in Berlin has made it a challenge for most people to find an affordable place to rent, he says. And then there’s the structural racism and landlords who prefer renting to people with a steady income. But Yoni’s experience with his new flatmate has been nothing but normal.

“There’s nothing unique about it for me,” he says. “We’re both secular, we both like parties. Why should it be much different than having a Spanish flatmate?”

As for Kamel, who fled Damascus after defecting from the Syrian army, later living in a Berlin refugee center for a year, he says “it’s like meeting a friend.” Despite what he was taught at school and through the media about Jews and Israel, he says he was pleasantly surprised by how much he and Yoni have in common. “They feed us this hate of Jewish people in general, but people are similar,” he notes.

Commonalities were also a strong thread connecting Faraj Alnasser and the Goldhills. Both Shoshana Goldhill and Alnasser are vegetarian – “so no worries about kashrut or halal,” Goldhill laughs. They gave a TEDx talk last weekend, telling an 800-strong audience about their journey together.

“We are so privileged, we have spare capacity in our house; we didn’t know what it was going to develop to be,” Shoshana tells Haaretz. “But in fact, it has developed like Faraj is part of the family. He calls Simon’s mom ‘Grandma.’”

Three more Jewish families in the Cambridge community have since followed suit and taken in Syrian refugees. “We’re very pleased and proud that other people have seen how it can be done and, really, how easy it is,” Simon Goldhill says.

The family’s Jewish background obviously played a part, Shoshana says, citing “World War II, and that whole thread of taking care of the stranger.” Though admitting to initial nervousness about hosting a young Muslim man, she says it has actually brought home to her the fact that someone who looks so different on the outside is, basically, so similar.