Opening Our Doors, Shores and Hearts to Refugees

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The story of these children highlights what refugee advocacy organizations can do at a local and national scale to assist those who are persecuted by rescuing, reuniting and resettling individuals and families, and successfully weaving them into the fabric of our society.

I recently viewed the documentary, Refugee Kids: One Small School Takes on the World, directed by Renee Silverman, which illustrates how refugee children can thrive when they are provided with help taking their first steps toward true freedom. In New York City, a summer program run by the International Rescue Committee provides a safe haven for refugee children, ages 4 to 21, from over 20 countries throughout the world, many of whom were separated from their parents for years before being reunited in the United States. For the first time, these children are able to hope and plan for a life free from fear or persecution because of who they are, as they slowly rebuild their lives and those of their families through education and hard work. The story of these children highlights what refugee advocacy organizations can do at a local and national scale to assist those who are persecuted by rescuing, reuniting and resettling individuals and families, and successfully weaving them into the fabric of our society.
As Philadelphians and as Americans, we must continue to open our hearts and our doors. We must offer hope and strength for survival to refugees persecuted abroad, to provide a safe haven for children and families to become successful and contributing members of the communities they hope can become “home.” It was not too long ago that many of our own grandparents and relatives were fleeing similar circumstances, desperately hoping for relief from the constant persecution and the daily struggle against hatred, discrimination and human rights violations.
For the past 18 years, through my involvement with HIAS, the oldest international migration and refugee settlement agency in the United States, I have been involved with the same refugee resettlement issues which have affected countless American citizens in the past, including my four grandparents, and continue today. While volunteering as a summer law school student in the 1990s at HIAS, I interviewed immigrants and asylum-seekers desperate to remain in the United States as a result of persecution in their home countries.
Following law school, my participation with refugee issues continued and encompassed advocating for immigration reform before Congress, supporting global advocacy for refugees and visiting refugees throughout the world while they awaited resettlement after fleeing persecution at home because of who they were, whether as a member of an ethnic, religious or sexual minority. As a result, I often reflect on how fortunate I am that my grandparents fled the pogroms of Russia in the early 1900s, eventually reaching the United States. If my family had not been successful in their flight, I, too, could have been a refugee hoping for relief from the constant persecution, abuse and threats to my well being.
As we continue to witness the daily tragedies of those fleeing Latin America and Syria, we must remember that the flight of today’s refugees is no different than the journey of many of our own grandparents and relatives who fled Europe, Africa, Asia or Latin America. They too, were hoping to begin a new life, hoping to live freely and safely and raise their families free from fear because of their religion, country of origin or ethnicity. How is it possible that now, in this great nation of immigrants, so many of us have forgotten from whence we came, forgotten how we and our families were forced from our homes by war, persecution and genocide? How can we now shut the door on so many who have lost so much?
I hope we can reflect on who we are and how we became citizens of this nation, and remain vigilant and committed to the changing and increasingly more complex needs of refugees. We need to open our hearts and our minds to support our collective obligation of tikkun olam, as this nation once did for us.
Benita Fair Langsdorf has served on the HIAS National Board since June 2008. She has long been active in HIAS Pennsylvania and was its president from June 2001 until June 2004. 

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