What I witnessed in Berlin last week

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I just returned from what used to be a City Hall on the outskirts of Berlin, now home to 1,200 refugees sharing 60 toilets and 30 showers. I joined sixteen rabbinic colleagues from across the U.S. on a critical mission: to deepen my understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis in order to educate my congregants and community, and share in ways we can respond.

That weathered old German fortress is just one of many “temporary” shelters where masses of people are trapped between worlds. The U.S. doesn’t want them. The German’s are trying to cope with the influx. And it’s too dangerous for them to return to Syria, their home.

{mosads}Through critical, committed leadership of our host, IsraAID (an Israeli non-governmental humanitarian organization working around the globe to provide emergent and sustainable humanitarian relief), we were able to dig deeper into the stories of fractured souls and societies in flux.

One of these was a 22-year-old young man from Damascus. He had been an aspiring engineer, but Deyya left everything in 2011 to unite his disabled sister and her two children with her husband who was already in Germany. Their grueling journey took them through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Switzerland, paying smugglers thousands of Euros to be stuffed into overcrowded trucks, cars and rubber boats; walking for long hours, some without shoes that had been lost. They finally reached Germany, only to be faced with a search for scattered relatives and unreachable friends. Young men like Deyya urgently need to know they have a future. Left to wallow in desperate circumstances, some of them will become sitting ducks for slick ISIS propaganda that promises a way out.

I witnessed fearful tears among men and women forced to surrender passports (to determine their authenticity); their names and identities reduced to a series of numbers on a wristband or ID card. Anxious tears — anticipating decisions beyond their control that would either grant refugee status or send them back to their war-torn country. Terrified tears — from the sinking reality that reunification with their families would not be guaranteed. 

No fewer than 36 times throughout the Hebrew Bible, the treatment of the stranger is noted, often with a companion explanation: Heed the stranger’s treatment “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). I interpret this not only as a narrow reminder for Jews to maintain our historical identity, but as an ongoing requirement for the Abrahamic faiths to take action, even if action is demanding and uncomfortable.

Integration of refugees has become a critical concern for Germany. 1.2 million have crossed Germany’s borders since last August, with only thirty Arabic-speaking social workers available to provide psychosocial support. Resources are extremely limited. Ten percent of the German population is stepping up as volunteers, helping to support and integrate refugees into their communities. NGOs like IsraAID are working hard to meet the challenges facing Germany in the midst of this mass migration. Government programs are being created to incorporate refugees into German society, but they are not enough.

The plight of the stranger is not just a Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or a Jewish story. America is a country built on the backs of our families — those who came here in search of greater opportunity, those who sought to escape oppression, and those brought here against their will. I have stood proud when the U.S. has served as a critical global leader, supporting victims seeking refuge from war, oppression and genocide. But when it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis, I am not standing proud. Americans cannot conveniently continue to ignore that we were once strangers. The Syrian crisis is in desperate need of humanitarian attention and dollars to support the countries that have become inundated with refugees, and the NGO’s that do critical humanitarian work on the ground.

I don’t know how to solve this crisis, but I do know that we have a sacred responsibility to support the stranger — men, women and countless children who risked everything in search of safety. I also know we are not living up to that sacred duty. We must start by owning our global and moral responsibility as American citizens and leaders – and increase support for the organizations and the governments that extend compassion, day in and day out, on behalf of us all. I know something else. I know that no one can call an old City Hall, “home”.

Rabbi Jason Nevarez serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in Northern Westchester, N.Y., and was recently part of a CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) fact-finding mission to Berlin. @RabbiNevarez

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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