As the plane touched down in Lesbos, Greece, where I had gone for a short trip to meet with refugees and HIAS staff, I turned on my phone to the devastating news of a leaked Executive Order: America was slamming shut its doors to refugees. 48 hours later – on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be exact – President Trump signed the Executive Order, betraying the values of our nation.
During those 48 hours I had the opportunity to meet with refugees who had risked their lives and their families’ lives to escape persecution, violence, and death and to hear their stories.
One woman told me, in a voice barely above a whisper, how she and her family, fleeing unbearable violence in Syria, experienced several failed attempts to cross the border into Turkey as police shot at her, her husband, and toddler daughter. They were stuffed into the back of a truck, her daughter nearly suffocating; they were beaten and tear-gassed. It took three more attempts to make it across the waters to Greece. She was desperate to join her parents in Germany.
Mohammed, a Kurdish man from Syria, fled with his wife and two children to Lebanon in 2011, after enduring years of imprisonment and torture. When life as a Kurd became untenable in Lebanon, they escaped, walking for days and nights, to reach the Turkish coast. During the 4 ½-hour ordeal at sea many drowned, but his family survived. His 9-year-old daughter relives the terror nightly. Mohammed told me, “I will go to any country. I just want my children to go to school.”
I sat with a woman who fled her native Ivory Coast to a refugee camp in Ghana after the government massacred her people. Genocide. She was then forced to flee from Ghana when she was gang raped upon the discovery that she was a lesbian. But here she sat, across from me, eyes brimming with tears, holding my hand and hoping for a different future.
All three of these individuals escaped persecution and violence, endured unimaginable journeys and loss, persevered, and now sat in the frigid Kara Tepe refugee camp in search of a safe place in which to begin to rebuild their lives.
During my time in Lesbos I was struck, as I am whenever I sit with refugees, by the incredible resilience of the human spirit. It is stunning how people can survive the unimaginable. And not just survive, but rise up, and even thrive. I will never forget the group of teenage girls I met in Uganda. All impregnated by rape, these refugees gathered together to share their pain and begin to heal. At the end of a session, they rose and began to sing and dance, faces lifted and radiant. I sat in awe of what the human spirit can endure and even transcend.
I arrived back from Lesbos to a changed America, with policies not seen since the dark days of the 1920s. But soon, people were swarming the airports and taking to the streets in protest. We (HIAS) organized a National Day of Jewish Action with communities across the country holding rallies and vigils. More than a thousand of us gathered in a sleet storm in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty to call on our elected officials to keep our nation’s doors open. Anchored and propelled by our Jewish values and history, more than 2000 rabbis, 370 synagogues, dozens of Jewish organizations, and tens of thousands of Jewish volunteers and activists have joined this growing movement. As Jews, we come with our own particular experience, responsibility, and power, and join the groundswell of people of diverse backgrounds working to ensure America remains a welcoming home for refugees.
These interlocking events – the Executive Order, my trip to Lesbos, and the surge in the Jewish movement for refugees – highlighted for me just how quickly our nation can betray its values with terrible effects on people’s lives across the globe. They drove home the outsized impact that America has. But these intersecting occurrences also revealed the human spirit, the power of activism, and the potential for the Jewish community, together with others, to stand up, resist, and work for the country and world we envision. Furthermore, I was reminded of the depth and beauty of human resilience – something we very much need as we enter into this new year.