The refugee crisis has splashed across headlines in recent weeks as European governments scramble to deal with thousands of people arriving on their borders. A dialogue has also been triggered in the global Jewish community about what it can do to help, particularly in light of its own history as refugees seeking asylum from anti-Semitism. The Jerusalem Post reached out to Jewish aid organizations around the world to find out what role they are playing to help refugees from Syria and the region.
“Talking to many supporters in recent days, there is a great resonance around our own history. My own grandparents were refugees in Britain, and I think my story is similar to many in my generation and my parents’ generation,” Paul Anticoni, executive director of World Jewish Relief, told the Post. “We have an empathy of looking after the stranger, and I think there is a desire to assist, irrespective of the nationality of the individual.”
The agency recently launched an emergency appeal for refugees. However, Anticoni notes that this is sadly not a new issue, and his organization has been supporting refugees in and around Syria since 2013.
“The cynic in me says that we’ve only just woken up to the issue in Britain, because suddenly we see a large number of refugees collecting on the French border in Calais, looking to enter the UK,” he said.
“Of course the situation’s taken a different scale and complexity in some ways as we’ve started to see the single greatest refugee movement across Europe for the best part of 75 years and so the scale of the problem necessitates a different level of response,” he adds.
In the 1930s, World Jewish Relief assisted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe, culminating in their orchestration of the Kindertransport, as well as assistance for camp survivors after liberation. Now, World Jewish Relief is providing food, shelter, and emergency materials to refugees in Turkey and Greece.
Supporting the appeal, Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said: “As Jews, many of us have family members who were refugees and our heritage must inform the way that we respond to the migrant crisis.
This is a deep and tragic humanitarian emergency,” urging the Jewish community to provide a compassionate response.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge this week to take in 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020 has been slammed by critics as inadequate.
Anticoni says he is on the one hand proud that the British government has led in its humanitarian support to the refugee crisis in the region, but would like Britain to be a welcoming and open environment to those requiring sanctuary.
“I’d like to see our doors more open,” he says, opining that if handled appropriately, receiving refugees into Britain can be a success story. “We’ve seen from our own history the enormous contribution that Jewish refugees made to Britain over the past 70-80 years,” he says by way of illustration. “Similarly, communities from our Ugandan, Asian influx even from the European influx has strengthened parts of our economy.”
He highlights the importance of “helping people understand the vulnerabilities that these refugees face and the opportunities the bring – it’s a bit about understanding the complexity of the situation, bringing a personal dimension to it, because you can always convince people to change their minds.”
HIAS is another organization drawing upon its history of helping Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms to lead the way today in helping settle Syrian refugees in the US. HIAS was founded for the former purpose in 1881 on the Upper East Side of New York City, but now helps refugees worldwide.
“Over the last 15 years, as Jewish settlement needs have receded, we’ve focused on broader refugee protection and consider ourselves to be a humanitarian agency,” HIAS president Mark Hetfield told the Post. “We are an agency motivated by Jewish values in order to protect refugees. Meaning, we protect them because we are Jewish, not because they are Jewish.
“Through our network of Jewish service agencies, we help resettle refugees by putting them in homes, in houses, getting them enrolled in English classes, getting their kids enrolled in school and trying to get them jobs.
“In terms of Syrians, the problem is that very few Syrians have been resettled in spite of the tremendous need. But HIAS has been resettling a proportional amount,” he says. This year HIAS has resettled 56 Syrian refugees, but hopes to resettle another 37 by the end of the month. “But since we resettle 3,500 refugees every year, we should be resettling more than that.”
HIAS is also advocating for the US government to take in 100,000 thousand Syrian refugees over the next year. “It much less than Germany is taking [500,000 a year], so we should be able to handle it,” Hetfield adds.
The US resettled 200,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1980 with no infrastructure in place, so we feel with today’s infrastructure, 100,000 Syrians shouldn’t be a problem.
He also points out a dissonance between the level of attention focused on the Iranian nuclear agreement and the lack of attention paid to the Syrian refugee crisis, despite the fact that it is the largest since the Second World War.
“It’s a huge threat. There is an extreme destabilizing effect,” he warns. “You have over 8 million IDPs and 4 million refugees, 250,000 dead next door, and all we are talking about is the nuclear agreement with Iran. If only we would take a fraction of the political capital that was put towards the Iranian agreement into the Syrian refugee crises, we might make some real progress here.”
The HIAS president actually says that the refugee crisis is a much more present threat. “Look at the effect the Syrian refugee crisis is having on Lebanon and Jordan. These are two countries we know from experience that when they are unstable, it’s not good for Israel,”
IsraAID is an NGO that prides itself on providing long-term support on the ground, around the world.
IsraAID has been actively responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and their host countries for over two years now, focusing on Jordan, Iraq, and Bulgaria. Ranging from emergency aid distributions to pinpointed trauma support and prevention training for host country government and non-government professionals, the organization is drawing on its expertise and experience in the management of crises triggered by refugees, to help others The NGO’s staff are now turning their attention to other affected countries, primarily Greece and Italy, providing relief items which they call “journey packages” to help new arrivals in these countries reach their final destinations – be that in Germany, France etc. – equipped with backpacks filled with hygiene kits and various winter clothes.
IsraAID will also conduct psycho- social training for the governmental and non-governmental professionals on the frontlines of the refugee crisis in the affected countries, providing them with the tools needed to support and care for a population that has gone through extreme suffering and trauma.
“There are very few Jewish or Israeli organization like ours who put their hands in the mud and do the dirty work,” says IsrAID founding director Shachar Zahavi.
Echoing the opinion that the Jewish community has a responsibility to help today’s refugees, Zahavi believes this responsibility stretches further than simply donating to the cause.” It’s very important that we have teams spread across Europe to help the European countries deal with the influx of refugees,” he asserts. “We have the capabilities and we know how to adapt.”
On a side note, Zahavi says the work IsrAID does around the world strengthens not only ties between Israel and other countries, communities and international bodies, but also between Jewish communities.
“We are always looking to partner with Jewish communities,” he says, adding that he wishes to see more involved on the issue from Northern American Jewish communities who were themselves immigrants from Europe.
As for the involvement of the Israeli government itself, Opposition leader Isaac Herzog has called on the Jewish state to open its doors to several thousand Syrian refugees, a demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the small country is not able to meet. While IsrAID declined to comment on the political aspects on the issue, the HIAS president remarked that such a gesture “would go a long way,” only if it was accompanied by real change in the Israeli asylum system, which he described as “totally broken.”
“The best thing Israel can do now is treat its own asylum seekers well, which it hasn’t done yet… Israel has not exactly been a light unto the nations when it comes to refugee policy,” Hetfield remonstrates.
Hungarian Jews have collected about $5,000 and half a ton of food and nonperishables for refugees from the Middle East in a collection drive last week. The Mazsihisz umbrella group of Hungarian Jewish communities and its youth department gathered food and nonperishables at three depots in Budapest, including a synagogue and Jewish community center.
“There are currently between 100 and 150 Hungarian Jews that I know of involved in the relief effort,” said Zoltan Radnoti, chairman of the Mazsihisz Rabbinical Council.
Hungary has been one of the main entry points into the European Union by tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, including many refugees from Syria and Iraq, where sectarian violence erupted and has been ongoing since 2011.
Last month, as international media outlets produced jarring reports about thousands of deaths by people who perished at sea or on land en route to Europe, thousands of migrants moved into Hungary – a European Union member state – from neighboring Serbia, which is not part of the European Union.
Many crossed into Hungary to continue to richer EU countries north of it, and Hungarian authorities in some instances helped the migrants cross into Austria.
Some 340,000 migrants from the Middle East have crossed into the European Union this year, according to United Nations figures.
Evoking the lessons of the Holocaust, several prominent European rabbis, including the chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, and the former chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, have urged European governments to treat the migrants generously and find a solution to their plight.
“As Eastern European Jews, we carry the knowledge of how it feels to flee our homes,” Radnoti told JTA.