Activist Phoenix rabbi hosts Syrian refugee family for Thanksgiving
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Activist Phoenix rabbi hosts Syrian refugee family for Thanksgiving

Shmuly Yanklowitz is working with other Arizona faith leaders to change state and national refugee policies

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (second from left), his wife Shoshana and two children host a newly arrived Syrian refugee family to Phoenix for Thanksgiving, November 26, 2015. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (second from left), his wife Shoshana and two children host a newly arrived Syrian refugee family to Phoenix for Thanksgiving, November 26, 2015. (Courtesy)

A Syrian refugee family newly arrived in the United States celebrated the most American of holidays on Thursday by being hosted for a Thanksgiving dinner by a Phoenix, Arizona rabbi and his family.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, 34, is known for his social activism and human rights work. In recent years, he has focused his efforts on issues ranging from veganism to homelessness to ethical employment practices. He has also worked to raise awareness around organ donation, garnering headlines last June when he altruistically donated one of his kidneys to a young Israeli man to whom he had no previous personal connection.

In the past month, much of Yanklowitz’s time has been devoted to the subject of Syrian refugees. As the Congress has worked to oppose President Obama’s intention to bring 10,000 displaced Syrians into the US in the next year, the rabbi and other Phoenix-area faith leaders have stepped up their efforts to advocate for the refugees.

Last Monday, Yanklowitz and other members of the interfaith coalition gathered at the Arizona state capitol to express their opposition to Governor Doug Ducey’s stated plan to shut the state’s borders to Syrian refugees. On Friday, The Office of Refugee Resettlement told the more than two dozen state governors who said they would bar the refugees that it was illegal to do so.

Syrian refugee family newly arrived to Phoenix, Arizona enjoy their first American Thanksgiving dinner at the home of human rights activist Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, November, 26, 2015. (Courtesy)
A newly arrived Syrian refugee family to Phoenix, Arizona enjoy their first American Thanksgiving dinner at the home of human rights activist Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, November, 26, 2015. (Courtesy)

Yanklowitz, who was appointed earlier this month as a commissioner on Phoenix’s Human Relations Commission, reached out to the leader of the local Syrian community shortly ahead of Thanksgiving to ask him if he knew of a Syrian refugee family in need of a holiday invitation. The community leader told the rabbi that there was a family that had arrived just days earlier who would be happy to be hosted.

“We connected really well,” the rabbi told The Times of Israel about how things went when the Syrian family came over to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with him, his wife Shoshana and their two small children.

“Our kids and their kids played well together, and we adults enjoyed getting to know one another with the help of an interpreter,” Yanklowitz continued.

He said that while the guests spoke of the traumas they endured and the challenges that faced them during their journey to the US, their faces lit up as they expressed their gratitude for having been able to enter the country, as well as their hopes for building a new life.

“They are really the lucky few to have gotten here,” Yanklowitz said.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, the US has taken in less than 1,500 refugees

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, the US has taken in less than 1,500 refugees, the majority of them in 2015. According to the rabbi, 120 Syrian refugee families have arrived in the Phoenix area in the last one-and-a-half to two years. It is expected that at least 45 more families will arrive in 2016.

Daughter of Syrian refugee family recently arrived to Phoenix, Arizona shows where she was shot by pro-Assad forces. The bullet pierced her kidney. November 26, 2015. (Courtesy)
Daughter of Syrian refugee family shows where she was shot by pro-Assad forces. The bullet pierced her kidney. November 26, 2015. (Courtesy)

“They aren’t living together in the same neighborhoods, so they feel very alone,” Yanklowitz explained.

To assist the families in their adjustment to their new lives, he and others have organized the collection of much-needed kitchen supplies and blankets for them. Furniture donations are also coming in, including a whole apartment’s worth of furniture that belonged to a Holocaust survivor who recently died.

As the two families conversed over Thanksgiving dinner, the mother of the Syrian family recounted how she and her young daughter had been shot by pro-Assad forces. The mother, who said she had a Jewish school friend as she was growing up, shared that she was hurt by accusations that she and her family were terrorists to be feared.

“She said that her family was just as angry at and afraid of jihadi terrorists as we are,” recounted Yanklowitz.

‘Jews can be part of the solution to this problem’

The rabbi is disturbed by what he perceives among Americans as a growing fear and hatred of Muslims, particularly Syrians, which is leading to a desire to exclude them.

“This fear is completely misplaced. These refugees are fleeing the terror and terrorists we are fighting,” he said.

“And more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived in the US since 2003. There was terrorism in Iraq, and I have never heard of a single act of terrorism carried about in the US by an Iraqi refugee,” he added.

Yanklowitz believes the US’s refugee vetting system is strong and wants it to remain so. He just wants the process to be sped up so more displaced Syrians can get into the country sooner.

There is much to be done by those who would like to see that happen, as reports that one of the terrorists who attacked Paris on November 13 entered Europe posing as a refugees has heightened fears even further.

“Jews can be part of the solution to this problem. The Jewish community should play a leadership role in this,” he said.

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