Like many American Jews, I had vaguely heard of HIAS while growing up. It went along with a dusty history of Yiddish-speaking relatives who had fled in the middle of the night with just a few precious belongings. This weekend, a far right wing extremist executed 11 Jews in cold blood in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, holding HIAS, and, by faulty and tragic logic, all Jews, responsible for helping immigrants come to this country.
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The news is full of stories of people fleeing war and persecution, torture, and death in the Congo, Syria, Burma, Afghanistan, El Salvador. Where there is devastation, there is flight, which means fear, desperation, lack of clean water, hunger, and an unrelenting terror of the unknown. Recalling a family story of relatives fleeing Odessa in a rowboat in the dark in total terror-filled silence lest they alert authorities to their flight, the connections became clear. This is not a Jewish story. This is a story — much simpler but also much more devastating — of the lengths that human beings go to survive and create a life of possibility and hope.
HIAS has now helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution; HIAS Pennsylvania resettles 100-200 refugees each year from conflict zones across the world, without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or the like. Refugees are selected by the Department of Homeland Security, and our job, as it has been since our founding in 1882, is to help them with the basics of making a new life here in Philadelphia: housing, healthcare, education, jobs.
The life for refugees is not at all easy. Many of our clients are quite surprised at grinding American urban poverty, but they are incredibly resilient or they wouldn't have made it here. Most of them find a way, just like my ancestors did, to make it work. They generally have to take jobs in food packing, in restaurant kitchens, in manufacturing to pay their rent. In time, they earn money, pay taxes, and their kids go to schools and quickly become Philly kids like all the rest.
The horrible mistake of the Pittsburgh shooter and those who think like him is that he has lost sight of this undeniable fact of human existence: There is no us and there is no them. We are one. We are human beings, with intelligence and compassion and humor and fear and drive. While we are seemingly stuck with some hatred in our midst, we also are able to choose to recognize our shared humanity, to see ourselves in the stranger and the stranger in us. We can give people a chance at a better life, whether they are born in Philly or Aleppo or Tegucigalpa, in Keren or Kuringu or Khartoum. America is a place that people go when they have nowhere else. That cannot be erased by a bloody morning in Pittsburgh.
When I first started at HIAS PA, I asked our lead case manager, a Syrian, what our Arabic clients think about being resettled by a Jewish agency. He said the reality is that most have no idea what HIAS stands for, and when they find out about our Jewish history, they really don't care. They are simply grateful for the help, like anyone would be.
Elie, a Christian refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo whom we resettled last year, recently wrote us a song as a thank you. "H-I-A-S HIAS P-A, thank you for showing me your love," his song begins, for love is the only solution to hatred, subjugation, and war. His song goes on, "As a stranger in a foreign land, you made me feel like I belong. In a foreign land, I had no one by my side; you stood by my side every day. As a refugee from Africa, thank you for showing me your love."
Rona Buchalter is director of Refugee Programming and Planning for HIAS Pennsylvania.