A Lesson in Compassion

1216greekrefugee“My son was kidnapped. We don’t know where he is.” 

“In Syria, when someone is in jail, we pray for them: we pray that they are dead.”  

 “I lost four children to bombs in Syria and now my husband on Chios, and in a few weeks I will give birth to twins, alone.” 

“I lost my two sisters in a bomb blast by Boko Haram”

“They shot at us when we crossed Syria to Turkey. They shot at us in the water from Turkey to Greece.”

These are just a fraction of the experiences recently shared with me by the forgotten and stranded residents of Souda Camp for refugees in Chios, Greece. These, in turn, represent only a fraction of the record 65 million human beings currently labeled as refugees or displaced persons.

The Torah (Ex. 23:9) tells us: Do not oppress the stranger. You yourselves experienced the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Translation mine.)

We were strangers. And not just in Egypt. I cannot help but be reminded of the dark time, three-quarters of a century ago:  everywhere, they turned us away—religious and secular, adult and child—arriving on their shores, a hair’s breadth from salvation. But none was offered, nor empathy extended for these innocents and their perilous journeys, their years of suffering, their hopeless future.

Surely we are not going to let it happen again. Surely.

Yes, today’s refugees aren’t Jews. They are also not terrorists, infiltrators or militants. They are regular people—Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, apostates—from every walk of life. Pharmacists. Professors. Electrical Engineers. Teachers. Nurses. About a third are children. They hail from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In their tens of millions they flee war, famine, persecution, rape and torture. Weary of mourning, terrorized by the bombs, the poison gas, threat of being kidnapped or tortured, they flee the evil rulers and the evil insurgents: ISIS. The Taliban. Boko Haram.

On their journey, they meet new dangers—military police, smugglers, savage storms and unseaworthy vessels. Drawn like Moses from the water, they are deposited not in the palace of the Pharaoh, but in camps like the one in which I volunteered, where they are left to the cynical and inept stewardship of the UN, the EU and large NGOs.

The cold-blooded bureaucracy erases their identities, ignores their rights and extinguishes their hopes. Independent volunteers and grassroots organizations step into the gap by soliciting donations from friends and family while providing fresh cooked meals to thousands each day. Without these individual volunteers, 1,600-plus people on Chios would go hungry. Fewer than 3% of the 60,000 refugees in Greece have had their applications for asylum processed. Even those who have are generally no better off: they are not allowed to work, and often end up living on the street. In despair, some even return home, consciously choosing probable death in their homeland over the endless, empty existence of the refugee.

On Chios, I worked with new or expectant mothers, providing lactation and nutritional support, assisting with prenatal care, and advocating on behalf of the mothers and their babies. In December, I will return to join other volunteers to distribute food, clothes, and other necessities. Please support my efforts by visiting www.gofundme.com/WeWereStrangersToo or contact me to discover other ways to help.

For you, too, were strangers.

Jackie Menter is a professional cellist and fundraising consultant. In partnership with The Jewish Collaborative of Orange County, she is raising awareness and spearheading local volunteer opportunities to aid refugees. You can connect with her at JackieMenter@gmail.com.

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