NEW YORK – “Refugee issues are Jewish issues,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn lamented mere days before the United Nations is set to hold a high-level meeting addressing the refugee crisis. Rosenn serves as vice president of HIAS. Today, HIAS is dedicated to helping not only Jewish refugees, but all refugees around the world.
It is part of the 15 other American Jewish organizations that are dedicated to solving a crisis that has spiraled out of control. “To have that many Jews coming around on a single issue is really remarkable,” Rosenn marveled.
In a joint statement, the organizations called on the world to “keep their doors open to refugees and to work with international organizations and civil societies to come up with new, creative approaches to address largescale displacement in the 21st century.”
In their view, the international community has failed the refugees by hoping that they are able to redeem themselves, come September 19, when the UN convenes for its annual meeting, and US President Barack Obama’s September 20 summit for countries committed to tackling the crisis.
The Jewish organizations asked state leaders to “ensure every refugee who seeks protection will find it, that every refugee will be able to access a timely, durable solution, and that the human rights of every refugee and migrant are respected.” Signatories of the statement include the Anti-Defamation League, T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.
HIAS, which uses the motto “Welcome the Stranger, Protect the Refugee” has been operating for over 130 years.
It was founded in 1881, originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and resettling in the United States. Since then, and particularly after the State of Israel was established, HIAS’s activities have expanded to the larger refugee population.
The organization, which has become known as the US Jewish community’s voice on refugee issues, is present today in a dozen countries, including Uganda, Chad, Kenya, Ecuador and Ukraine, among others.
During a small meeting with journalists in New York on Friday, president and CEO of HIAS Mark Hetfield said he applauds the international community’s recent initiatives on the subject, because “refugees were never popular, it’s always something that they [world leaders] delegated.
It’s been very frustrating that this crisis was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it was going to implode and it finally did. The world didn’t really pay attention to it until it spun out of control.”
Hetfield explained that HIAS’s role is to help refugees build a life in the host country where they are, and if that is impossible, help them get resettled somewhere else. The resettlement process includes help with enrolling their children in schools, finding them a place to live, a job, and even putting them on the path to citizenship.
“We have now more refugees and displaced persons than at any time since the Second World War. Sixty-five million,” Hetfield said.
“About 21.3 [million] are refugees, and the rest are displaced persons.”
While it has shifted its focus from inward to outward, HIAS remains deeply rooted in Jewish values, Rosenn told the meeting.
“We used to help refugees because they were Jewish, andnow we help refugees because we are Jewish,” she said, quoting Hetfield before her. “It is a core Jewish value to welcome the stranger. Not just to welcome the stranger, but to protect the stranger, to love the stranger.”
She said this commandment is explained by the Torah by the fact that Jews themselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. “This has really been our story as a people,” Rosenn continued.
She explained that HIAS also works to mobilize the Jewish community around the refugee crisis. The community, she said, had lost track of the issue after the establishment of the Jewish State, and has only recently awoken to it again, a year ago, on September 2, 2015, with the iconic photograph of Alan Kurdi, the refugee child lying lifeless on a beach.
To rally Jewish congregations across the United States behind the cause, HIAS has recently established the “Welcome Campaign.” By joining it, the congregations pledge to take action and educate others about refugees, raising money for them, and welcoming them in their own communities.
Some 200 congregations across the US have already signed on to the “Welcome Campaign.”
In recent months, and since terrorist attacks such as the November 13 shootings in Paris, some have expressed concern that terrorists may pose as refugees to enter countries and commit attacks. “We need to look at the big picture,” Mark Hetfield said. “We need to look at our history as a country of refugees. Refugees have always come from countries that are not friendly to us, that’s why they are fleeing and that’s why they’re fleeing to us.”
“The darkest moments in American history are those moments when we’ve been so afraid that we’ve shut our doors,” he added.
Hetfield said he is very concerned about the current rhetoric in the United States and Europe targeting refugees, and Muslim refugees in particular.
”Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has reiterated multiple times his belief that a ban on Muslims from entering the US should be put in place, and that people coming into the country should take a test to assess their loyalty.”
In addition, dozens of state governors across the US have refused to take in refugees. “We are very, very concerned about creating an unwelcoming environment,” Hetfield said.
“Refugees are easy targets. The only lobbyists they have are us, nonprofit refugee agencies.” He also pointed out that the US government’s vetting process for refugees is a lot more thorough than portrayed.
“The US government vets refugees right side up, upside down and sideways.
They have an incredibly ornate and cumbersome refugee vetting procedure,” he explained. “Frankly, it’s probably overkill, and it causes major delays in the program, but nonetheless, this procedure, which takes on average 18 to 24 months, if you’re able to clear it at all, gives us real assurance that no terrorists are gonna be getting through.”
“If you are a terrorist and you’re not an idiot, you’re not gonna use the refugee program as a way to get into the United States,” he continued.