NEW YORK — “I get really nervous when I’m reading about refugees. The stories are usually on page 32 and they all remind me of the past,” said Manfred Lindenbaum, 84. “Whenever I hear news reports of people crossing the border, the horror of it all, what followed afterwards, comes right back.”
Lindenbaum was just six years old when he and his family left Germany in 1938, expelled because they were of Polish decent. Once the family made it to Poland, Lindenbaum’s mother heard there was a chance for children to get to England on Kindertransport.
Soon Lindenbaum and his brother Siegfried were put on a boat bound for London. His 14-year-old sister, Ruth was considered too old. Told another boat would come, she remained behind. No other boat came and eventually Ruth was killed along with her parents in Auschwitz.
In 1946, when it came time for Lindenbaum to resettle, it was with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now, Lindenbaum wants the world to remember his story so that it doesn’t forget the refugees of today and tomorrow.
“Whatever it is, it’s not gong to be enough. It can never be enough, but it will help hundreds of thousands more who didn’t have a chance,” he said in a telephone interview. “We have to say ‘They are us.’ If we stand by, we’re the problem. If we stand up, we are the solution.”
And so in spite of the incendiary rhetoric and escalating xenophobia pervading the American presidential campaign, HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee resettlement agency, together with people like Lindenbaum, aims to push the United States to remain open to those seeking a haven from violence and persecution.
“It is a core Jewish value to welcome strangers,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the HIAS vice president of community engagement. “It is mentioned in the Torah 36 times. It is the rare commandment that is given a reason: ‘Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ It’s a core value, but it’s also our history.”
More than 65.5 million people worldwide are displaced, numbers not seen since Word War II. Of those, about 21.3 million are refugees, 3.2 million are asylum seekers, and 40.8 million are migrants, according to UNHCR. Refugees are people forced to flee their country because of armed conflict or persecution, while migrants are those who choose to leave their homes for economic reasons.
And so during this week’s UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, and President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, HIAS will push for stronger US leadership on the issue. It is the first time such high level meetings will be convened to address resettlement and humanitarian assistance.
‘We’ve shifted from an organization who helps refugees because they’re Jewish to one who helps refugees because we’re Jewish’
Building on the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, both meant to ensure that no government could prevent the persecued from seeking and finding asylum, the American Jewish community is once again calling upon the international community as a whole to support refugees, said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS.
“It’s a really important time to reaffirm our commitment to refugees. Our organization has shifted from one who helps refugees because they’re Jewish to one who helps refugees because we’re Jewish,” Hetfield said.
Putting words into deeds, HIAS recently launched the HIAS Welcome Campaign, a nationwide effort to mobilize a grassroots Jewish response to the refugee crisis. Nearly 200 synagogues and 1,300 rabbis pledged to take action through educating others about refugees, advocating with elected officials for better policies, raising money to support refugees, and welcoming refugees into their own local communities.
Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, welcomed a family of six from Syria into their community last week. The congregation furnished a new apartment, stocked the kitchen, and cooked the family a welcome meal.
Additionally, congregants will help with transportation, conversational English and even babysitting while the parents attend to practical matters such as securing Social Security cards.
This week’s high-level meetings at the UN coincide with the Obama Administration’s recent announcement that it will increase the number of refugees admitted to the US by 30% in fiscal year 2017. It plans to accept 110,000 refugees during fiscal year 2017, compared with 85,000 during fiscal year 2016.
Additionally, the 45 countries attending Obama’s Leaders’ Summit are expected to increase humanitarian aid by $3 billion, increase the numbers of refugees being resettled and increase employment and education assistance.
Of the 85,000 refugees the US took in during fiscal year 2016, most came from South Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin American and the Caribbean, according to the Pew Research Center.
To further break it down, between October 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016 the US took 8,112 refugees from Myanmar; 6,350 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 5,780 from Somalia; 5,385 from Iraq; 2,924 from Bhutan; 2,805 from Syria; and 2,049 from Iran.
This represents a fraction of the 10,000 Syrian refugees the US pledged to take. By comparison, the United Kingdom pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees.
‘Everything changed with that photograph’
While the numbers of refugees being resettled may increase, the international community was slow to react to this crisis until September 2 of last year. That’s when the photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, spread around the world.
“Everything changed with that photograph. America woke up to the refugee crisis. Everybody wanted to help,” Rosenn said.
Yet, if the photo of Kurdi served as a call to action, the Paris attacks a couple months later had the opposite effect.
“And then November 13 happened and everything changed again and that was the beginning of the backlash and the candidates amplified the rhetoric and increased xenophobia and Islamophobia,” Rosenn said.
‘Refugees are easy targets because no one lobbies for them’
Since the Paris attacks, 31 US governors declared their states closed to refugees. New Jersey and Kansas both withdrew from the Refugee Resettlement program and Texas has threatened to withdraw.
“The refugee program has been entirely politicized, it is as if the facts don’t matter. Refugees are easy targets because no one lobbies for them,” Hetfield said.
Christopher Boian, public information officer for UNHCR, said ensuring border security and responding to refugees with humanity aren’t mutually exclusive.
“First, it is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum, to seek life-saving protection. In the same vein, it is imperative that states put the capacity in place to ensure those in need of and entitled to international protection receive it promptly — and, by the same token, those who do not meet that standard are returned home in an orderly, dignified way,” Boian said.
“Strong asylum systems allow states to make sure every individual receives a fair hearing, to identify those in need of protection and to make sure they know exactly who crosses their borders and why. This in turn ensures that people forced to flee war or persecution in their homelands are cared for and that states manage their borders in orderly, effective and humane ways,” said Boian.
Contrary to what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and other like-minded politicians say, the US knows exactly who is being resettled here, Boian said. The less than one percent of refugees chosen for permanent resettlement in a new country must go through an arduous vetting process, Boian said.
It takes between 18 and 24 months to go through the US process, which includes background checks by government multiple agencies. And that only happens after a several weeks to months long initial vetting done by UNHCR or other international agency.
‘It is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum’
As for Syrian refugees, biometric data, including retinal scans and fingerprints, is collected from virtually all Syrians four-years-old and above. Only then, the UN refers the refugee to a county for resettlement.
“The refugee doesn’t know where they’re going. They have no choice. Sometimes they don’t even know what city they are going to until they land,” Hetfield said.
And when they do land, HIAS will be there to welcome them to their new home, just as they were there for Lindenbaum all those years ago.
“I just feel we can’t support these organizations enough,” Lindenbaum said. “We Jews have a special obligation to speak out for refugees.”