In November of last year, I went to Eastern Europe for three weeks with my mother. Together, we explored our roots and tried to put together the pieces of our past. As we went through concentration camps and ghettos across Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Germany, we felt our hearts break into pieces. We hadn’t expected to stand where six million Jews whose lives were needlessly taken once stood. We heard the echoes of their screams and cries. We stood in their shadows. We sensed their presence every which way we went.
Most importantly, we felt a deep sense of loss for the world. I developed a more profound resolve to return to America to commit myself to the cause of helping refugees. Already involved in and empowered by the work of HIAS—a resettlement organization that rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are, with deep roots in World War II—I decided to help form a local group dedicated to the cause.
When I became aware of a new group, Neighbors for Refugees, I knew where I needed to dedicate my time. It’s a grassroots organization made up of individuals from congregations, civic groups and student groups in southern Westchester. The organization is focused on refugee resettlement using a co-sponsorship model in cooperation with the State Department and affiliated organizations, and is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status.
Neighbors for Refugees grew very quickly into an organization of 15 impassioned leaders and 175 dedicated volunteers. We welcomed our first refugee on March 7 of this year, working through Catholic Charities Community Services. It has been a joy to watch him settle in so nicely with the help of this committed group of volunteers.
Naturally, there have been bumps along the way. Even still, several months after President Trump’s proposed travel bans, Neighbors for Refugees continues to focus on refugee resettlement. As an organization, we have been eager to help, but the bans have disrupted our work as part of the humanitarian effort to resettle refugee families fleeing persecution.
The court ruling enjoining the enforcement of the ban has fortunately allowed refugee resettlement to resume, and some families have been able to get to America for now. However, the administration issued a second order last month and is still defending it in court. Nonetheless, we march on and continue to work directly with HIAS and Catholic Charities in hopes of receiving a refugee family and helping whomever we can.
On this note, we will be hosting a communitywide event that will allow the community at large to participate in the work of welcoming refugees on a real, actionable level. More than anything, we are hopeful that this event will inspire and educate people to advocate for refugees and know that every action counts.
“Welcoming Refugees—What You Can Do” will take place at Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck from 2-5 p.m. on June 11. This will be an interactive event with hands-on activities for all, and boasts inspiring journalist Jodi Kantor from The New York Times as our keynote speaker. She covered the Canadian refugee experience last year and wrote an engrossing, compassionate story. Student groups from both Mamaroneck High School and Scarsdale High School, local elected officials and clergy will also be in attendance. This event for the entire family is an opportunity to get everyone involved so we can continue our work in changing the lives of refugees who are here and those in refugee camps.
We will be sending postcards to the White House asking that the immigrant ban be lifted; we will have a Wishing Tree, where people can make pledges on items needed by refugees either here in the United States or in camps or in transit in Syria and surrounding countries; we will collect goods from our community members and organize, sort, bag, label and box them, and drive them to a collection warehouse with guidance from Greater NYC Families for Syria and NuDay Syria; and much, much more.
We can’t sit still while there are people suffering around the world. Volunteerism is everything. It’s important never to forget what happened during the Holocaust. We must remind the world that “never again” means #NeverAgain and we stand #WithRefugees.
If you want to get more involved, be sure to visit the Neighbors for Refugees site at www.NeighborsForRefugees.com or join the Neighbors for Refugees Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NeighborsForRefugees. Or to volunteer, sign up here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HHR-LM.