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Walking In Each Other’s Shoes
We are the sons and daughters of refugees. Whether our grandparents,
great-grandparents or a more distant ancestor came to the US from
another country, few of us can lay claim to be natives. We’ve fled
persecution for a better life since biblical times. Some family members
came to escape pogroms in the late 1800s while others left the chaos
of Europe after World War I and still others reached our shores mere
steps ahead of Hitler’s war machine. Are we any different than people
fleeing tyranny today?
Our forefathers and mothers landed in various parts of the US by boat
with a deep mixture of fear and hope. They had connections to branches
of their family tree, but arrived with few worldly possessions into an alien
culture with a new language and way of life. Sound familiar? It happens
every day to people facing comparable obstacles…only now it’s 75, 100 or 150 years after our ancestors managed that same feat. How many of us can even contemplate following in their footsteps if called upon?
On the first Thursday evening of each month, JFS offers a legal clinic to recently arrived refugees staffed by a cadre of attorneys providing services pro bono. They patiently sit in the reception area waiting their turn for precious time with an expert who might help navigate the complicated process of settling in a foreign country. I invite everyone reading this article to walk through the JFS door at the JCC, look into the eyes of these people, shake their hands and not immediately recognize a relative in your distant past. The lump in your throat, pumping heart and tingling sensation down your spine is not an accident. It’s a sign. An unmistakable reminder which says “I’ve walked in your shoes. Jewish people know the burden of being the outsider. You are not alone.”
Every time I co-sign a check from JFS for our refugee resettlement program, I examine the names and hear their story. An engineer trained in a foreign land who needs to improve his or her English and climb the ladder again in an adopted country. Elderly parents relocating to the US with their kids only to find the transition quite difficult. The mother of young children abandoned by her husband trying to learn new skills and provide support. Real people with real needs. Not unlike our own forebears.
However, the difficulty for a transplant begins well before they arrive here. Each person must have documentation showing family members in the US are ready to help them. All refugees must go through a vetting process by the Department of Homeland Security, HIAS and JFS. While waiting to "pass", most applicants remain in a country not their own and not the US. Think of it as a waystation. Such a complicated set of procedures takes an average of 2 years and occasionally more than 5 years by the time we meet refugees at the airport. Much dedication is required to remain on track for acceptance.
Most contributors to JFS understand the need to help, but some say “why should I aid these people? They look different. They sound different. They have different customs. They may have a different religion." Again, sound familiar? We, the Jewish people, should know better than most. It’s in our DNA. Our hearts and minds and even every breath we take. Where there’s a need, especially when the person sitting at JFS might have been us in an earlier age, we lend a hand.
JFS of Silicon Valley created a special fund earmarked specifically to provide support to refugees from some of the world’s most dangerous places. Please do not turn away. We were all refugees at one time seeking the same outstretched hand asking for a new beginning.
JFS SV President