From Africa to Israel

0715chesterIt was an overcast day and I was at my favorite lunch spot, Chipotle, but found myself less focused on the creamy guacamole (I know it’s extra), GMO-free sour cream (whatever that means), and cage-free bell peppers (it tastes great, stop asking questions)  and instead, couldn’t keep my eyes off the man sitting across from me.

I’d never met anybody whose life experiences differed so drastically from my own. I’m white, he’s black. I’m Jewish and study Torah, he’s Muslim and reads the Koran. I see my parents weekly and give flowers to my mother on birthdays. He heard the gunshots from rebel fighters that killed both of his parents and newborn brother. He had to hide under the bed of his home in Guinea to avoid capture when he was 12-years-old. This prompted him to jump out the window with his then 4-year-old sister and sprint to a nearby forest until he could later return to a village that no longer rang of gunfire.

His name is Jean Luc, and he changed the way I view the world.

I met Jean the same morning we ate Chipotle, during his visit at Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS). Jean shared his story with my colleagues and I, explaining what followed his return from the forest that fateful day.

Discovering that the senseless murder of his immediate family was a reality, Jean took his sister to his grandmother’s village. While living there briefly, he craved education, something his father had insisted he pursue. Jean left his sister behind, and trekked to the capital hoping to find an opportunity to study. Soon learning that only wealthy children could access education, Jean lived in abandoned buildings with other refugees. It was during this time that he met a man in Senegal who promised him a trip to Europe where he could attend school. Skeptical, yet driven for change, Jean accepted the man’s offer.

That morning Jean believed he was headed for Europe, but the Jeep he was picked up in was headed elsewhere. “I kept asking about the airport,” said Jean, “until they pulled out their guns.”

At that moment, Jean realized he was not only a refugee and an orphan of genocide, but a victim of human trafficking.

He was driven from Guinea to Egypt over a 6-month period. During that time, he experienced helplessness, fear, anger, resentment and blame. “I was in a situation where I wanted to die,” said Luc. “I’d say to the smugglers, ‘Just kill me, here, take me.’”

Fearing capture by Israeli border patrols, the smugglers fled, abandoning Jean Luc in the middle of the desert.

Jean entered Israel at age 15. Homeless, with no identifying paperwork, he was arrested and brought before a magistrate. As fortune would have it, the judge was a graduate of Yemin Orde Youth Village, a safe haven in Northern Israel for youth with traumatic backgrounds. Compassionately, the judge contacted Chaim Peri, the Youth Village’s director.

Jean ultimately found solace in Yemin Orde, growing up under the guidance of Peri and his staff of talented educators and therapists. “Coming into Yemin Orde, I was disturbed, and knew nothing about Israel. I was scared and had lost everything,” said Luc. “Then, I started school and was surrounded by people who cared about me. The rigid schedule involving Beit Knesset (synagogue), meals, school, counselors, and sports always kept me occupied, stimulating my mind and providing a sense of purpose and responsibility. Everything I have now, my knowledge, spirituality, courage, and hope have come from Yemin Orde. It’s where I found my new family.”

Considering his traumatic past, I asked Jean how he moves forward. “I believe in the law of attraction. Whatever you think about, you bring into your life,” Jean replied. “So I stay positive. When I hear the difficulties of others, I consider the good things in life, thinking, ‘Wow, thank G-d I don’t have what he has.’ Although my past was difficult, I have everything I need now and am thankful. I don’t need to be like Bill Gates, I just want to be emotionally, physically and economically secure. I understand there are things I’m able to change, and things that if I can’t, I’m sure G-d will do something about.”

Shortly after his placement at Yemin Orde, a JFFS Family Mission to Israel visited the Youth Village where they met Jean, and lasting friendships formed.

Through JFFS’ Connect2Israel program, several OC families have provided Yemin Orde with significant support for its scholarship fund, assisting greatly in Jean’s college education. Having recently completed his Bachelor’s degree in Israel, Jean’s now preparing for graduate school to earn his MBA.

“I hope to leverage my knowledge of Israeli and African cultures and languages, creating a positive change for others,” said Jean.

For much of his nine years in Israel, Jean had no legal status and constantly feared deportation. He recently received his Israeli student visa and re-entry visa, allowing him to visit America to share his story with JFFS and the OC community which aided in his journey.

As Jews, we understand tragedy. Because of the atrocities of our past, the duty to help others is deeply engrained in us.

“I want to help anybody I can, because we’re all human beings, and helping others should be a part of life,” said Jean. “When I was in need, I received help from people that didn’t even know me. The Jewish people didn’t look at me and care that I’m Muslim or African. They simply saw somebody who needed help and did something about it, changing my life as a result.”

Adam Chester graduated from UCSD with a degree in Clinical Psychology and is the NextGen Outreach & Engagement Coordinator at JFFS.

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