Every year on June 20, we observe World Refugee Day, established by the United Nations in 2001 to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. Estimates indicate that 15 million people are currently living as refugees, exacerbated by conflicts in Syria and elsewhere. A small number of these people find their way to the Bay Area, building new lives in our community and contributing to our region’s cultural richness and diversity.
In the East Bay, we are currently welcoming refugees fleeing hurriedly from Afghanistan, where many worked as translators for U.S. troops. We are home to Iraqis fleeing ongoing war and conflict. We are welcoming religious minorities fleeing persecution in Iran. And in the past few years, we have welcomed LGBT refugees from several countries, fleeing for their lives.
We Jews know about refugees — we are no strangers to being strangers. It is embedded in our history, our texts and our psyches. With long experience and deep empathy, we reach out to the current generation of refugees, grateful at this historical moment to be the welcomers rather than the displaced. Resettling refugees takes time. It does not always go smoothly. Many of us can attest to this from our own experience and from hearing our own families’ stories.
One recent refugee is an Afghan woman named Latifa now living in Contra Costa County. Her husband was killed by the Taliban and she fled the country with her children. After spending several years in a refugee camp, she finally received approval to come to the United States. Since Latifa’s arrival, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay has helped her find and pay for housing, enroll the children in school, access medical services, and connect with a volunteer for help with tutoring and acculturation.
Frank is another refugee who recently arrived in the Bay Area. As a gay man, he had to flee from his village in the south of Congo. He ended up in Kenya for four years, waiting for clearance before coming to the United States. JFCS/East Bay helped him find housing with a local family and also connected him with a team of volunteers to help him with English, orient him to the community, provide social support and bring him to appointments; a member of the group even got him his first job.
The Bay Area Jewish community can support refugees like Latifa and Frank in many ways. We can provide direct support to newcomers as volunteers and as financial contributors — and in the current Bay Area market, finding safe, affordable housing for new refugees is always a priority.
We can also address larger policy issues. That’s why JFCS/East Bay partners with HIAS, which works internationally as the Jewish community’s instrument of refugee resettlement. This World Refugee Day, we ask you to join us in raising awareness about the need for improved policies and services for refugees in the United States. While the United States welcomes more refugees than any other country, our government imposes unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles on people who have fled their homes fearing torture, imprisonment or worse.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) have introduced the Refugee Protection Act, which would ensure that the United States upholds its commitment to protecting refugees, asylum seekers, children and other vulnerable migrants who have fled their home countries and seek safety in the United States.
Please take a moment to urge your elected officials (www.bit.ly/RefProtection) to support this important legislation.
On this World Refugee Day, let us honor our own history and our own cherished values by welcoming the stranger who seeks a new life among us. Let us, together, affirm that we will not pull the ladder up after ourselves.
Avi Rose is the executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay.