The recent Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, is set as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. The text repeats the command (Deut. 4:41-43) in the book of Numbers (Num. 35:9 ff) to set aside three cities of refuge on each side of the Jordan, a total of six that will be for people to flee from avengers. We read in Numbers that these cities are there for someone who kills another unintentionally. For instance, we read in Deuteronomy (19:5), if two men go together to cut down trees, and the axe head flies off the handle, killing one of the men, the other one can flee to one of the cities of refuge for safety.
The Jewish concern for providing places of refuge continues throughout our history. From the time of the Mishnah, over two thousand years ago, Jews have lived in fear of being held hostage, and the ransoming of captives was considered a cardinal mitzvah. Indeed medieval synagogues had separate funds dedicated to the redemption of hostages taken by pirates, enemies of our people, or the state. We understand the dangers of being an oppressed minority. And many of our grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave their native lands and wandered stateless.
As we are commanded to understand the plight of our neighbors, our hearts go out to all people who are forced to leave their country, who seek refuge and safety and a new life in a new land. It is part of the Jewish ethic that I teach and celebrate.
So I was pleased to learn about IsraAID, an Israel-based non-profit organization that reaches out particularly to address crises around the world. IsraAID was there for the tsunami in Japan and for the 2014 ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and for relief following the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. They take pride in being the first on the scene, the very first responders: pulling people out of the rubble, helping the rubber boats filled with refugees land on Lesbos. So for good reason they have added to their work assisting the refugees arriving in Germany. IsraAID began its work in Germany in February, 2016, when there were 5-7,000 refugees arriving each day. There are still 85,000 refugees still in Lesbos—trapped there, since the path to Europe has been closed. By June and July this summer the number of refugees arriving in Germany had fallen to 500 arriving each day. IsraAID works with the United Nations Commission on refugees and other groups in assisting the refugees, such as Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, Caritas.
The statistics of this enormous migration are staggering, if a bit confusing. More than 50% of Syria’s population is displaced. About 6.5 million people are refugees in Syria, and 4.8 million people displaced in other countries. Around 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, and more than 3,700 migrants were reported to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety and a new life. According to the U.N., there are almost 5 million “persons of concern,” or registered Syrian refugees. But not all the refugees are from Syria. They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. From January, 2015, to March, 2016, the refugees arriving in Europe were just less than half from Syria; less than a quarter from Afghanistan, and 10% were Iraqi. Who are these people? What is their background? Why did they flee? How has the world helped them?
Recently I participated in a special mission sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis in North America. We went to Berlin to learn about the refugees from Syria and other countries, their situation, plight, and how we might help. We met with groups of refugees and those who help them: aid workers from IsraAID, social workers and psychologists, government officials, staff at shelters, and representatives of the Berlin Jewish community. We toured shelters and visited community centers reaching out to serve these refugees. We met with leaders of IsraAID and the American Jewish Committee in Berlin to gain a deeper understanding of the response from the Jewish community.
I must confess that I did not have a good understanding of who the refugees are, or why they have left their homes, or what their needs are. The numbers are overwhelming for us to consider, as well as for the communities of Germany and Sweden to assist and hopefully absorb. I had thought of these migrants as uneducated victims of political turmoil in their homelands; that they were from tribes in the wilderness, although we all know that the populations of Damascus and Aleppo (both important in biblical and Jewish history) have been forced to flee. Of all of Israel’s neighbors, I knew the least about Syria. They were the most intransigent of enemies, the least likely to have any contact with the Jewish state. Why, I wondered from time to time, are we interested in the plight of people form a nation that is technically still at war with Israel and has taken every opportunity to hurt the Jewish people?
These were not the refugees I met. I learned that 86% of the Syrian refugees have secondary or university educations. Most of these refugees are young—under 35 years old—and hoping to live in Germany or Sweden, where there are jobs and opportunities for education, as well as governmental assistance. Over half the refugees are under 18, and 43% are under 14. And I learned that those nations that have agreed to help are shouldering great burdens, while their neighbors watch from a distance. Germany and Sweden have accepted over a million Syrian refugees, while the remaining 26 EU countries have offered just over 30,000 places, or 0.7% of the Syrian refugee population. The United States has set aside all of 10,000 places.
There are more men than women whom we met and saw: men who have braved the perilous journey, leaving their wives and children behind while they establish themselves and a place for their families. There are 60,000 unaccompanied minor refugees in Germany. The German nation, with a population of 80 million people, is seeking to help and absorb over one million refugees. By comparison, the U.S., with a population of 320 million, has agreed to accept 10,000.
Let me tell you about a couple of the refugee men whom we met. Wasim lived in Swaida, Syria, a center of Druze population near Damascus, once with a population of a million residents. Now there are only 600 people left in his village. In 1994 he graduated as a teacher of English at the age of 23, and he would like to teach in Germany. Some time ago he protested against the Assad regime and thus needed to leave the country. While he was waiting for his exit papers, he was kidnapped and learned that Isis was “at his door,” as he told us. He applied for asylum a year ago, and his Syrian passport was taken away from him. He is stateless, without a nationality. He is 45 and left behind his wife and three children, aged 16, 11, and 8. He made his way to Turkey, with his cousin—also an English teacher—where they contacted a smuggler who agreed to take them to Europe. They spent several hours on a rubber boat from Turkey to Greece and then four days in Greece, before they made it to Germany. (We learned that the journey from Turkey to Europe usually takes about a month.) Once in Germany, Wasim spent eight months in three different shelters, including some time in a basketball stadium, remade to accommodate as many as 2,000 people. Despite great odds, and a severe shortage of apartments in Berlin, he and his cousin have been able to rent a flat for €450/month. To qualify for asylum, he needs to study German diligently and take a series of examinations to prove his proficiency. He takes classes for 5 hours each weekday and has achieved considerable success, a couple of notches below where he would need to be to be approved as a translator. He communicates with his wife and children each day via WhatsApp on his smartphone. His great concern is that his 16-year-old son will not be able to immigrate to Germany once he reaches his 18th birthday, and the wait for asylum status can be over two years.
There was a law in Germany, as in many other western countries, reuniting families, which would have taken precedence in allowing him to bring his family from Syria. But two months ago that law was changed and then challenged in the German courts so it is now in legal limbo.
We also met Wasim’s cousin, also a member of the persecuted Druze minority. who is also an English teacher by profession. As he began to tell us his story, he broke down as he reflected on his wife and children who are trapped in Syria and live in constant danger.
We learned that the religious differences are very significant among these refugees. The Muslims are of many different backgrounds and do not get along with the Druze, a minority, and less with the Yazidi refugees, who are not Muslim and whose beliefs have subjected them to persecution for centuries. We also learned that despite German laws that guarantee free religious practice for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, Islam is not an official recognized religion by the German government– in part because the Muslim community is not organized. While there have been Muslims living in Germany since the 1960s, most of them are from Turkey and came as “guest workers,” without wanting to become residents. Their mosques are funded by Turkey, and they are seen as guests rather than integrated into German society.
Our group visited shelters where the refugees are housed. The shelter I visited is in a former cigarette factory, a huge concrete building with very high ceilings. This shelter houses around 600 refugees now, but could have 1,000 people, or even more. Men, women, and families with children (There are more than 200 children in the shelter.) are housed in separate sections. The refugees live in what we would call temporary cubicles, each one just large enough to fit in three bunk beds—six men or six women per cubicle. There is no door to the cubicle and no ceiling and no place to keep personal effects. Bathrooms and showers are located in another section. All the residents, 600 of them, eat their meals at the same time. We were in the huge dining room an hour before dinner, and the noise from just the early arrivals was almost deafening. There are only 5 social workers on site to tend to the psycho-social needs of the residents. Up until now (they are building cubicles for them to meet with residents), there were open hours for social workers to meet with residents in a spot in the dining room, without any privacy. Many of the children are not able to attend school, where they would like to be, because there is no space for them in the school.
There is a considerable security presence, with lots of guards visible, yet the residents seem to pass in and out of the building and from section to section comfortably. We learned that there has been crime in the shelter, mostly against the refugee residents or among rival religious groups. Crime by immigrants has dropped 18% and crime within the shelter is down 10% this year. While a fifth of Germans report that they fear these foreigners, hate groups in Germany represent less than 2% of the population. At the same time, we were told that over one million Germans are currently volunteering with the refugees. Unfortunately I must report that some in the German Jewish community are ambivalent about these new refugees. While we learned that one congregation has volunteered to assist, we also heard several negative comments from Jewish community leaders about the refugees and the threat they supposedly posed.
There are dire needs: shortage of social workers who are able to address the overwhelming needs of these refugees, so many of whom have just experienced great trauma and are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. There are over 300 shelters in Berlin for these refugees. As you would imagine, the burnout from these overworked social workers and counselors is pervasive. There are even fewer social workers and counselors who speak Arabic, one reason that the assistance from IsraAID is so valuable.
As we learned about the background of these refugees (65-75% of whom are from Muslim countries), their harrowing journeys, their plight, and their fears and hopes, we were all moved. We learned about the religious minorities among the refugees, the various backgrounds, and the complexities of their situations. Why is IsraAID there—with its full-time staff in Germany of 8 people, including two social workers, and 5 summer college interns? Because IsraAID believes in engaging Israelis to work with other peoples to improve our broken world. IsraAID believes in connecting young Jews and young Jewish professionals in humanitarian work, to broaden their perspective. IsraAID believes that the work and picture of caring Israelis will help Israel on the world scene. IsraAID has partnered with USAID, UNICEF, and governments such as Japan and Greece and non-governmental organizations to provide humanitarian assistance throughout the world. They are non-political, receive no funds from the Israeli government, and do not do their work for the good publicity it might engender. Their work, their commitment, and their mission remains inspiring to me, as to our entire group. They are not looking primarily for funding, since most of their funds come from large sources. But they do need volunteers and especially they need for us to know about their work.
At the end of our mission, several of my colleagues were struck by the turn of history that Germany and Berlin in particular are now the places of refuge for so many fleeing violence and terror in their lands. We marveled that a city that was so recently a place of terror for our people is now a place of safety and hope for our Arab cousins. May the message of the need for cities of refuge that we read Va-et’chanan resonate in our lives today. May we work together to repair our broken world.
Rabbi Fred Reiner serves Temple Sinai in Washington D.C.