The many faces of the Jewish refugee
Since the global refugee crisis took over front pages and cable networks, a popular statistic in the Jewish world has been the number 36. It’s mentioned frequently by politically attuned and progressive-leaning clergy as the number of times, at minimum, Jews are commanded in the Torah to care for the stranger in their midst, for they were strangers in the land of Egypt.
But there’s no need to look as far back as the Exodus to remember a time when Jews were strangers in a strange land. The face of the modern refugee is kaleidoscopic: Syrian, Afghan, Rohingya, Yazidi, Sudanese, Congolese. This effect is found in miniature within the many colors of the Jewish refugee over the last century: Persians, Russians, Iraqis, Poles, Germans, Algerians, and others who have sought respite in America.
In the few days since President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting refugee admissions, the anti-Nazi theologian Marvin Niemoller has enjoyed a new vogue for his verse: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. … Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Today’s body politic has reimagined these lines as, “First they come for the Muslims, and then we said, ‘Not this time!’ ”
By compelling them to reach outward, to march for and alongside Muslims, the recent protests have caused American Jews to look inward and to draw on their own past. A look inside the very long — and yet very recent — history of Jewish refugees reveals a diversity that reflects today’s global refugee crisis, as well as its pervading narrative of persecution and hardship.
Collected below, edited for clarity and length, are six of these Jewish refugee stories, in their words.
From left: Simon Ebrahimi, his daughter Maryam and wife, Nahid, in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, shortly after arriving from Iran. Below: the portrait for his 2012 novel.
After a few months, we arrive at the New York airport. I’m with two little children and my wife. And my wife, who knows my temperament, she said, “You just don’t argue with anybody. Let’s go through this.” I said, “Fine.” So the guy calls me and says, “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” I said, “Excuse me?” “You Iranians,” he says. “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” … The third time, which is, you know, typical, he came and he said, “You still didn’t respond to me.” I said, “You know what, why don’t you and I go to Iran together and release the hostages? It’s a simple solution!”
— Simon Ebrahimi, 79, Woodland Hills
Milana Vayntrub as a toddler, newly arrived from Soviet Uzbekistan. As an adult, she has earned national fame in a series of AT&T commercials.
This is little me on the front steps of our apartment building in West Hollywood, in my coolest athletic gear. Most people living in that community were immigrants and it brought us so much closer together knowing we had this generous network of friends and babysitters we could rely on. A few years after arriving to America, my grandparents immigrated and moved in next door. My grandmother used to make Russian dumplings by hand and sell them to delis. She used her earnings to pay her way through school, where she studied English and accounting. Last year, she was able to comfortably retire. She’s a huge inspiration.
— Milana Vayntrub, 29, Hollywood
Igor Mikhaylov (center) in 1983 with his family in Kiev. Below: Mikhaylov with his wife and sons in 2013.
My family and I left the Soviet Union in 1989 when I was 10. We were escaping anti-Semitism, which was rampant. Jewish refugees could not go directly to the U.S., and places like Austria, where we were initially settled, were overrun with refugees. The situation could get very heated, with Austrian protestors holding picket signs that said, “Shoot the Jews!“ and yelling “Sterben!” — “Die!” Later, we settled in a beautiful Italian coastal town, Santa Marinella. It had magnificent views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, palms, beach and a medieval castle, but none of it was really enjoyable since we were living in limbo. People had heart attacks, aneurisms, nervous breakdowns. Then came the vetting process and questions such as, “Were you ever members of the Communist party?” The only correct answer was “No!” Who would check? How can you prove it?
— Igor Mikhaylov, 38, Granada Hills
Penina Meghnagi Solomon (above, second from right) with her family in a refugee camp in Italy in 1967, after fleeing Libya. Below: in 2013.
I can remember the black sky from the burning. And we were in terror because they were looking for the Jews. … We lost everything. We had property, we had money in the banks. … I remember coming in [to the refugee camp in Italy] and not knowing where we’re going to sleep, what we’re going to eat, whatever. I was 17. And my mom was a widow at that time. … But maybe because my personality is I’m always looking to the positive on anything, I was happy to leave [Libya]. I was happy to leave to a place where I was subjugated to always worry, always with the head half turned back, you never know when you’re going to be pinched or someone’s going to try to kill you. So for me, we were on our way to freedom and it was a good feeling.
— Penina Meghnagi Solomon, 67, Valley Village
Bob Geminder (right) with his brother George and cousin Muriel shortly after he arrived with his family in the U.S. after the Holocaust. Below: Geminder in Los Angeles in 2016.
I was 12 years old. Knew no English pretty much, just some really bad words that the soldiers taught me at the German [displaced persons] camp. … This [photo above] was in East Orange, N.J. — that was kind of our first stop in America. … We were at that DP camp in Germany in Regensburg for about a year and a half, and that was kind of my first schooling. That’s where I learned the alphabet, I learned what two plus two is — you know, some math.. … The big joke in the Regensburg camp was, “Don’t worry about it — you’re going to find money on trees in America.” Me, being a foolish 12-year-old, I started looking at the trees.
— Bob Geminder, 81, Rancho Palos Verdes
Tabby Refael (left) with her mother in the 1980s, shortly before emigrating from Iran. Below: Refael with her son in 2017.
The black-and-white photo features my mother and me in Iran in the mid-1980s. Iran printed the word “Jew” next to our names on our passports. Months later, on the same document, the Americans printed the three greatest words that have ever been written about us, stamped in a miraculous, indisputable promise: “Protected Refugee Status.” That alone should tell us something about the differences between repressive theocracies and redemptive democracies. I am eternally grateful to Congress and to HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for the gift of a renewed life, as this photo of my son and me in America in 2017 conveys. It also captures my inner joy at not having had to wear a mandatory Muslim head covering in more than 28 years.
— Tabby Refael, 34, Pico-Robertson