HIAS Discussion Examines Syrian Refugee Crisis

There are approximately 60 million refugees in the world, out of which 20 million are outside their country of origin. Of those 20 million, 4 million are Syrian refugees.

The Jewish ideal of “welcoming the stranger” hits particularly close to home for Judith Bernstein-Baker.
The executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania since 1998 spoke to members of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) Philadelphia chapter about the work HIAS does, and the current refugee crises — during an NCJW event at Melrose B’Nai Israel Emanu-El April 5.
“I’m here to talk about the Syrian and global refugee crisis and the special responsibility we feel as a Jewish organization, as an organization based on Jewish values, because we have been refugees for each of these crises,” she said, citing past crises such as expulsion from Russia, fleeing the pogroms and the Holocaust.
The timing of the event was particularly apt, Bernstein-Baker noted, because of the proximity to Passover.
“What a wonderful time to speak about refugees,” she said.
Using a slideshow to share facts and pictures, Bernstein-Baker talked about the programs HIAS offers, including legal services and asylee outreach projects, as well as numbers related to the current world refugee crisis.
There are approximately 60 million refugees in the world, she said, out of which 20 million are outside their country of origin. Of those 20 million, 4 million are Syrian refugees. She highlighted other “trouble spots,” including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Myanmar.
One particularly startling statistic she shared is that 51 percent of refugees are under 18 years old.
HIAS has assisted more than 350,000 refugees and immigrants throughout its 100-plus year history. Bernstein-Baker and her team work with more than 70 nationalities and approximately 2,500 refugees each year. That includes helping refugees find housing and employment quickly to get on their feet — the government only provides assistance and income for 90 days, she said.
“We’ve always been the little engine that could, HIAS has, and we’ve risen to every crisis in the world,” she said.
She highlighted a joint report the NCJW and HIAS did in 1939 on work with refugees. That year, they interviewed 34,000 refugees coming to America — mostly fleeing from the Holocaust.
Throughout her presentation, she talked about the intricacies of the refugee vetting process, sharing photos of refugee camps in countries such as Rwanda, as well as examples of the response to the refugee crisis today.
She showed a U.S. map with most states highlighted in red and fewer highlighted in green. The ones in red signified states whose governors have asked not to accept Syrian refugees. Pennsylvania’s was green.
A main reason many places do not want to accept refugees is out of fear and not understanding how closely the refugees are vetted.
The United Nations referred about 23,000 for resettlement to the U.S., but only about 3,000 have arrived because of all the vetting, she said.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat security issues,” Bernstein-Baker said, “but I’ve worked with refugees. I know who they are, and I know the kind of vetting they get before they come, and I know they’re victims of terror. They are not terrorists, and I get upset when I hear that.”
So far, HIAS has resettled four Syrian families, she said.
Resettling families as HIAS does is a long process within a short period of time. HIAS is given two weeks notice that a family or refugee they sponsored is coming, and they have that amount of time to find them an affordable place to live and furnish it.
Afterwards, they help refugees acclimate: They get Social Security cards, set up bank accounts, get English as a Second Language (ESL) lessons, attend cultural orientation programs and, hopefully, get a job.
Their goal is to help refugees become self-sufficient, Bernstein-Baker said.
She noted the outpouring of community support — “My phone is ringing off the hook” — from synagogues that want to help.
Members of NCJW and the community said they came out to hear Bernstein-Baker because it’s an important issue.
“Immigration is certainly one of the hugest issues in our country and in the world,” said Mindy Blatt, director of the Jewish Children’s Folkshul and NCJW member. “And the more you can learn — especially in my role as director at the Folkshul, I can help bring the information and shape some our actions both to help individually and help collectively as a group.”
For Blatt, the Jewish connection is a big one.
Looking back on our history, she said, “we know what’s happened in the past and what could very well happen again.”
“Immigration is dear to the hearts of American Jews,” she continued, “and the actions we take to help others are certainly the actions that we hope would be taken for us.”
The Jewish connection is something Bernstein-Baker notices, though the refugees and immigrants HIAS assists are not all Jewish.
“The Jewish population is very responsive to any refugee crisis that comes because of our history,” she said after the event. “It’s almost like it’s in our DNA.”
Bernstein-Baker has her own personal connection to HIAS.
When her mother was 12, she and her family were fleeing their hometown in Poland to escape the pogroms and finally arrived at Ellis Island after six months of traveling. However, her mother had conjunctivitis, and authorities wouldn’t let her leave because they considered it a contagious disease.
“They separated the family and they said to her mother, brother and sister that they’re allowed to come to America but they’re going to put my mother on a boat back to Poland,” Bernstein-Baker recalled, “so my grandmother said ‘No, if she goes we go. We stick together, we’re a family.’”
HIAS then sent a doctor to Ellis Island and put Bernstein-Baker’s mother under his care. He wrote a note saying that he made sure she’s not contagious. After being quarantined for a few days, they let the family off together.
“My mother always says if it wasn’t for HIAS, we wouldn’t be here,” Bernstein-Baker said.
Working with the refugees HIAS has supported — many of whom now even work for HIAS — has given Bernstein-Baker a different perspective.
“I love my work,” she said. “It also makes me really appreciate what we have already and how we have to protect it — our freedoms, our religious freedoms, our ability to speak our mind without being fearful we would be arrested, our ability to travel freely in the U.S. — all of these are very precious and you really don’t appreciate them until you meet people that don’t have these opportunities.”
Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here