October 13, 2019

Beings of no nation, but a world of refugees

So the world is awake.

We thought all we needed was the indelible image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and his delicate little body washed up on a beach to rouse us from passivity to passion regarding Syrian refugees.

It wasn’t enough that for four years, we saw images of beheadings, massacres, ancient relics reduced to rubble and heard about a head of state using chemical weapons to smite his own people. We read the headlines as the death toll rose and rose, by now to more than 320,000 souls, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But until we saw little Alan, it had not hit hard enough.

And now it has hit hard again. This time in Israel, with the indelible, bloodied image of 29-year-old Mila Habtom Zerhom, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, who on Oct. 18 was mistaken for a terrorist, shot and then trampled to death by an angry mob. “People took out their rage on him,” a bystander told Ynet news.

So this week we wake to the challenge of the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in Israel, many of whom face problems even more severe and profound than those of typical asylum seekers. So we’re awake, again, and we must suffer the consequences of conscience.

“Three months ago, I would have said our biggest challenge is to get the word out that Jews should care about refugee issues,” Riva Silverman, vice president of external affairs for HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said during a recent appearance in Los Angeles. “Today, our biggest challenge is: Can we respond quickly enough to all the hundreds and thousands of people that are saying ‘We want to get involved, we want to help, what can we do?’ ”

During the High Holy Days, which occurred about a week after Alan’s image was disseminated all over the world, HIAS raised more than $1 million for its ongoing efforts aiding refugees in places like Syria, Chad, Uganda, Ukraine and Ecuador.  “It was our most successful season of fundraising in decades,” Silverman said, outdoing last year’s sum of nearly $250,000. “The refugee experience is in the Jewish DNA, so I think this issue touched a chord in the Jewish community in a very profound way. It’s been our history for the last 2000 years.”

The Syrian refugee problem is most acute. Silverman estimates that 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, a number, she adds, which is equal to roughly half the Syrian population. Seven million are internally displaced, after being forced to flee their homes, and nearly 4.2 million, according to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have fled the country – most of them now living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Good hosts,” Silverman said, “but overwhelmed.”

One in every five people in Lebanon right now is a refugee. “Imagine if that was the case on your block,” Silverman told a small crowd gathered at the West Hollywood home of philanthropists and activists Bill Resnick and Michael Stubbs, who regularly host a salon series, Petrichor, exploring major global issues.

Without healthcare, education or enough access to food, many of those refugees preferred to risk the perilous journey to Europe. We know how that ended for Alan and his family.

Unfortunately, the Syrian refugee problem isn’t the half of it. As I write, tens of thousands are fleeing escalating violence in Nigeria, spilling into neighboring regions like Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Nearly two and a half million from South Sudan have been displaced by violent conflict there. “Ten years ago,” Silverman said, during the genocide in Darfur, “everyone was very passionate [about refugee issues], but I guess we got kinda bored because those people are still living in camps.”

The number of refugees worldwide is staggering. It is estimated that nearly 60 million people are displaced around the world, and some 22 million of them are living in exile from their home countries. But here’s what’s worse: the total number of resettlement slots available to 22 million people, from all the countries in the world combined, amounts to a paltry 105,000.

The United States accepts up to 70,000 refugees each year, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the U.S. would increase its quota by 15,000 per year for the next three years in order to accommodate those fleeing Syria. Germany announced it will take in 800,000 Syrians this year. But by and large, Silverman said, “Less than 1 percent of refugees will ever be resettled in another country.” Millions will be born and die in camps.

For a refugee, the state of statelessness can last a lifetime.

But the concept of a refugee is still fairly new: the UNHCR was created in 1950, just after World War II, in order to help European Jews and others who were displaced by the conflict. HIAS has been around even longer: Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the organization considers itself “the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S.” In Israel, its work primarily consists of helping the Israeli government integrate the 50,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who crossed the border into Israel in the mid-2000s. What happened on Sunday is proof of how badly their services are needed there.

“It was a horrible tragedy and highlights that there are [many] asylum seekers in Israel whose cases have yet to be resolved,” Silverman said.

In fact, it was the Israeli Ministry of the Interior that invited HIAS to help create a processing system for asylum seekers, which Israel lacked. Now, more of these asylum seekers are receiving legal representation, which is the only way to expand their rights and get them out of detention camps. “Anywhere in the world an asylum seeker has a lawyer, their chances for a positive outcome skyrocket,” Silverman said.

It’s comforting to know that when the world turns its back, HIAS is there, doing its holy work, caring for the most vulnerable strangers, orphans and widows on earth, providing them with legal assistance, psychosocial support and helping to resettle 3,500 refugees in the U.S. each year. Israel would do well to follow the example of others in the Jewish world.

“One thing we often say is: We used to protect refugees because they were Jewish,” Silverman said. “Now we do it because we are Jewish.”