Eminent biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz wrote in her “Studies on Shemot” that since the commandment to “welcome the stranger” appears in the Torah a record 36 times, “We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land.”
Today, as international media spotlights the widespread humanitarian crisis in the influx of migrants and refugees in Europe, many Jewish individuals and organizations are taking up Leibowitz’s challenge.
But for many other organizations such as the United Kingdom’s World Jewish Relief, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Israeli NGO IsraAid, work with Syrian refugees began in 2013 with the outbreak of civil war.
“The refugee crisis, although prominent in the news recently, is not a new issue. Every year, thousands of people flee conflict, insecurity, human rights abuses and persecution. Most are from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan or Afghanistan,” said World Jewish Relief’s Stacey Swimer at a Board of Deputies of British Jews emergency meeting late last week.
“What has changed is the volume,” said Swimer.
The meeting was called to coordinate over 20 UK Jewish organizations’ responses to the refugee and migrant crisis slowly reaching their shores as British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to welcome 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Elsewhere as well, other Diaspora Jewish organizations are likewise mobilizing, petitioning governments, and opening emergency aid appeals.
Back in Britain, however, Swimer gave a thorough summary of the situation in Europe. As recorded by the European Union’s monitoring service, over 350,000 people have entered Europe between January and August 2015, an influx that represents more than the total number of migrants in the whole of 2014.
She noted that although Europe is currently in the news, “in reality, the vast majority of those fleeing remain in countries bordering their country of origin or in transit countries.”
“For example, although over 120,000 Syrians have arrived in Europe recently, another four million Syrians have fled elsewhere, mostly to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Turkey currently has 1.8 million Syrian refugees,” said Swimer.
‘The Greek reception centers are so severely unsanitary and chronically overcrowded that the conditions in them may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law’
The hardest-hit European countries are those bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy and Greece — main entry points to Europe for refugees from Middle East and North Africa. In particular Greece, struggling with its long-term economic crisis, has seen some 235,000 enter its borders this year.
And what was once a trickle is now a flood.
“More people arrived in July than in the whole of 2014. Most are Syrian refugees that are taking the relatively short voyage from Turkey to the islands of Kos, Lesvos and Samos — often in flimsy rubber dinghies or small wooden boats,” said Swimer.
Greece’s migrant intake infrastructure is weak and falling far short of on-the-ground needs, she said.
“According to one assessment, the Greek reception centers are so severely unsanitary and chronically overcrowded that the conditions in them may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” said Swimer.
With so much doom and gloom, indubitably many Jews are by now asking, how can we help?
Don’t send food and clothing
Despite what Baby says in “Dirty Dancing,” there are still starving children in Europe. But don’t wrap up your pot roast yet: unless you live right next door to a European refugee transit camp, don’t send food or clothing.
Shachar Zahavi, founding director of Israeli NGO IsraAid, is just back in Tel Aviv from a stint with refugees and migrants in Greece. He cautions against well-meaning but unneeded food and clothing donations by North American Jews.
“Collecting clothes is not relevant; these people are on the move,” said Zahavi. There are already significant donations of clothing, food and water from Europeans, he said.
“We prefer to purchase relief items on the ground,” he said. IsraAid purchases basic necessities from European Jews among other sources. “Getting clothing from US Jews is just not relevant,” he emphasized.
Do send baby carriers
Zahavi’s NGO IsraAid launched a campaign calling for baby carriers this week to be distributed in Greece to those families that are still on the move and crossing borders.
The campaign is based on the worldwide initiative Slings for Refugees, which has collected thousands of baby carriers from across the globe using localized Facebook campaigns.
Those interested in donating serviceable baby carriers, worth upwards of $50 a piece, can contact IsraAid through its website, said Zahavi.
Volunteer your expertise
Are you a medical doctor or certified social therapist with upwards of two weeks vacation in the next month? Then IsraAid, and potentially hundreds of other aid organizations, can use you.
Since setting up operations in Greece and Serbia, among other locations, the IsraAid team is lacking these key medical personnel, said Zahavi. The organization will arrange for travel and upkeep, he said, but requested that doctors and therapists only contact IsraAid if they have two or more consecutive weeks to donate as it takes time to train and build a team.
You’re not a doctor but maybe you’re a graphics whiz or a social media maven? Or perhaps you know how to shout from the rooftops — at least in your local shul.
Among other endeavors, the over 130-year-old Jewish immigrant agency HIAS is disseminating thousands of pamphlets to synagogues over the High Holy Days to raise awareness of the migrant situation.
And this seemingly minor initiative is already bearing fruit.
According to HIAS director of communications Bill Swersey, “We have been hearing that many, many rabbis – possibly hundreds — discussed this issue during Rosh Hashanah services and encouraged their congregations to take action.”
In addition to working with partners across the globe, HIAS has hundreds of staff on the ground in 12 countries where it provides refugees with legal assistance, trauma counseling, and training in sustainable livelihoods.
Originally tasked with settling Jewish immigrants to the United States — including, notably, statesman Henry Kissinger and actress Mila Kunis — the organization now resettles thousands of refugees in the US in some 22 communities.
If you would like to volunteer with refugees and asylum seekers in your own city, HIAS invites you to complete an online form and you will be contacted with more information.
Mobilize your local government
Last week former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, in one of his last acts in office, announced the country would take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees (making a total of 25,000) and pay support for another 240,000 displaced persons in countries neighboring Syria. This week the country also made good on a promise that Canberra would join an anti-Islamic State coalition and carried out its first airstrike in Syria.
According to the AFP news agency, the United States, Canada, Turkey and Gulf states have already been involved in strikes on IS militants in Syria, while France has been carrying out surveillance flights over Syria in preparation for airstrikes.
Perhaps part of Australia’s expanded operations is due to lobbying work by Australian religious groups, including the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, which participated in a high-level working meeting Friday with Abbott and three senior government ministers.
This inclusion in the high-level meeting “was a recognition of the Jewish community’s prominent role in advocacy on behalf of a humanitarian immigration programme, expertise in absorbing refugees and leading role in fighting xenophobia and the activities of racist and religious extremists,” according to the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s Jeremy Jones.
‘Australian Jewish public affairs, social welfare and Holocaust education organizations have been amongst the loudest voices urging Australia to increase refugee places’
“Australian Jewish public affairs, social welfare and Holocaust education organizations have been amongst the loudest voices urging Australia to increase refugee places and to contribute financially to UNHCR efforts in the Middle East,” said Jones. Additionally, said Jones, “Many Jewish individuals and organizations are part of efforts to combat bigotry and ‘compassion fatigue.'”
Likewise, in the United States, HIAS is petitioning the Obama administration to “take bold action to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees into the United States this year, to provide considerable humanitarian assistance to aid to refugees abroad, and to address the root causes of the crisis.”
Money makes the world go round
It goes without saying that all aid organizations could always do with a little pecuniary help. And IsraAid, with boots on the ground all over the world, is no different. Neither is World Jewish Relief, originally founded to bring Jewish refugee children to England on the famous Kindertransports.
Last week at the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ emergency meeting in Britain, organization and coordination took the main stage and a new “one-stop website” for communal involvement was unveiled.
At Support Refugees, British Jews can find educational resources as well as where to donate time and donate money to earmarked campaigns such as World Jewish Relief’s emergency crisis appeal to support refugees in Turkey and Greece, which has raised over £180,000 since its launch on September 4.
A post-meeting press release detailed some of the ways in which World Jewish Relief has been using its donations: In Turkey, for example, World Jewish Relief is already working with the International Blue Crescent.
In Greece, World Jewish Relief’s response is done in coordination with the Greek Jewish community. Their goal is to aid “vulnerable groups” such as mothers with newborns, and to provide shelter, blankets and hygiene kits as well as medical support on Greece’s northern border and on its islands.
Furthermore, since 2013, the organization has been providing refugee camps close to the Syrian border with educational supplies for some of the 275,000 children there.
‘Considering our own people’s history as refugees and our commitment as Jews to respond to this humanitarian tragedy, we acted’
As recently reported in The Times of Israel, the JDC’s Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan has also been onsite in Syrian refugee camps since 2013 alongside the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees and has now opened up extended operations in Europe — and an additional call for donations to support them.
The new funding initiative has already garnered some $125,000 and JDC staff has begun work in Hungary in distributing basic supplies.
“Considering our own people’s history as refugees and our commitment as Jews to respond to this humanitarian tragedy, we acted last week and requested that the JDC-led Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, initiated two years ago, expand its mandate to raise funds and allocate resources to work with refugees and migrants in need beyond Jordan, primarily but not exclusively Syrians,” JDC CEO Alan Gill told his board and staff on Friday.
A JDC field worker on the Hungarian border with Serbia updated the board last week, writing, “I was immediately shaken by the seemingly endless flow of refugees and migrants making their way on train tracks across the border as rain poured down and wind swept through the flat cornfields. There was an absolute chaotic scene in muddy fields as hundreds of refugees scrambled to keep their children dry under plastic trash bags, grabbed food being distributed by young volunteers, and attempted to use anyone’s local cell phone in order to make contact.”
With these scenes in mind, said Gill last week, the JDC will decide where it can make the most impact.
“Safe spaces for children and women, as well as psychosocial support programs, are likely interventions,” said Gill.
— Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.