Though the Syrian refugee crisis is five years old, the photo last summer of the drowned young Aylan Kurdi woke us up. Suddenly, it was not just an issue far away. In this innocent face we could see our own children. But what could we do?
The situation felt remote and, in recent months, the political climate has fostered an increase in xenophobia. But why be afraid? Refugees are vetted by the government. And maybe even more important, we were strangers too. The Torah repeats this phrase dozens of times. Do not oppress the stranger because we too were strangers in a foreign land.
What if we could find a personal connection? An act of hesed? Happily, an opportunity arose.
I learned a few months ago that a group of nine Syrian refugee families had just moved to Elizabeth. The International Rescue Committee, founded in 1933 to help refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, secured housing, schooling, federal benefits, health insurance and medical attention. Initial needs for furniture and clothing were met.
Coincidentally, I met a local Syrian American woman, Rana Shanawani, through a Millburn/Short Hills working mother’s google group. She connected me to the families and thus began TBA’s involvement.
We initially met at the main library in Elizabeth. Volunteers were matched weekly with Syrian refugees. It was well-intentioned but chaotic and it soon became clear that matching volunteers with specific families would be best. In February, we began working with the Zakkours, a wonderful family of five: Mohammed Ali and Samar (expecting a baby any day now!) and their children Mohammed Salman (9), Zain (7) and Judy (3).
Each week we tutor at Elizabeth’s Dar-ul Islam Mosque or at the family’s apartment across the street. Mohammed Ali and Samar are eager to learn English and find work; he’s a tailor and she crochets beautiful outfits. The Zakkours fled the violence in Syria in 2011 only to spend four years in difficult, traumatic limbo in Jordan.
They are grateful to be in America and appreciate the many volunteers who help them. Besides the tutoring, we help them with issues at school – the ESL program is particularly challenging – pursue job opportunities and, in general, learn about being Americans, including how to have fun…something they’ve had little of. It’s all incredibly rewarding.
Social Action Chair, Lisa Reisboard and Carole & Malcolm Schwartz are overseeing TBA’s efforts. Several of us are already involved with the Zakkours but we could use help!
Specifically, we need: Volunteers willing to make a minimum bimonthly commitment to one hour tutoring sessions in Elizabeth, either during the week or on weekends.
Individuals to organize (and take the family on) one-shot (or maybe more) recreational outings like to a baseball game, the Turtleback Zoo, into New York City, to an amusement park, and so on.
There are also some items the Zakkours need:
- Loveseat or small sofa
- Twin bunk beds and linens
- Smart Television
- Newborn baby girl clothing, baby bag, diapers, wipes, shampoo and paraphernalia to stockpile!
- Summer Sandals: Boys sizes 3 and 5
- Summer Sandals for 3 year old girl, size 8
- Summer Sandals: Men’s size 11, Women’s size 9
- Blanket for 3 year old girl
If you can help with any of the above, please let me know!
When we read the Haggadah, and recount the sufferings of our ancestors, we are inevitably reminded of the blessings we enjoy. Hopefully, we are equally reminded of the obligation we ourselves consequently have to “welcome the stranger” and help others who have escaped persecution.
A sweet Pesach to you and yours,
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz