High Level HIAS Delegation Returns from Latin America

Posted by Lee Gordon & Mark Hetfield on Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Marc Silberberg meets with Colombian refugee

Marc Silberberg, Chairman of the HIAS Board of Directors, meeting in Limones, Ecuador with a Colombian refugee who ekes out a living harvesting conch. Photo credit: Eric Newman

Between 1933 and 1945, nearly 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe escaped Nazism by fleeing to Latin America. Most did so with the help of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS opened offices throughout Latin America to offer Jews an immigration option, as the immigration quota laws of 1921 and 1924 extinguished the Statue of Liberty’s torch for Jewish migration to the United States.

Lee Gordon with Venezuelan refugee

Over the last decade, HIAS—for 130 years the migration agency of the American Jewish community—has reopened the doors of many of these offices. From November 9 – 21, 2011, a delegation of HIAS lay and professional leadership traveled to Argentina, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador to observe HIAS’ re-established operations. The delegation was led by Board Chairman Marc Silberberg of New York and International Operations Chair Sandra Spinner of Cincinnati; they were joined by three members of HIAS’ professional leadership and board members from five states, including Lee Gordon of Highland Park.

Lee Gordon, Vice Chair of HIAS, (seated at right) listens to a refugee tell her story in Venezuela. (The refugee’s back is to the camera to protect her identity.) Photo credit: Eric Newman

These HIAS offices are no longer dedicated only to the immigration and integration of Jewish refugees. Rather, they now are run by the descendants of Jewish refugees and welcome the people fleeing the “forgotten” conflict that still rages in Colombia. HIAS Board member Yuli Wexler of Maryland noted that, given the origin of HIAS in Latin America, it is particularly meaningful that HIAS Ecuador and Panama now administer the “DAFI” scholarship program to assist Colombian refugees on behalf of the German government. (Funded by the German government, the purpose of the DAFI program, or Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund, is to contribute to the self-reliance of refugees by providing them with a professional qualification for future employment.)

The revival of HIAS is largely due to a labor of love by HIAS Representative to Latin America Enrique Burbinski. Enrique is a well-respected Jewish professional who previously was Executive Director of AMIA, the community center in Buenos Aires that long has been the center for Jewish life in Argentina and was the target of a 1994 bombing that took the lives of 85 people and injured more than 300.

Enrique re-opened HIAS Buenos Aires in 2001 to help Jewish victims of the economic crisis relocate to other Jewish communities in Europe, Australia, North America, or Latin America, where they would be more likely to find employment.

By 2003, with the help of Jewish Argentine psychologist Ana Berezin, who had treated victims of torture and trauma from the Argentine “Dirty War” of the 1970s, HIAS re-opened its office in Ecuador as a small program funded by an anonymous donor. It consisted of two part-time psychologists in the border town of Lago Agrio, and provided psycho-social care to refugee men, women, and children who were among the one-third of the 750,000 refugees fleeing Colombia who had sought refuge in Ecuador. Sabrina Lustgarten, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community in Quito, took the reins of HIAS in Ecuador, and now it is an organization with more than 100 employees in nine cities, assisting clients with securing shelter, living provisions, food, micro-credits, livelihood training, and psycho-social and legal services. HIAS has become the largest partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ecuador, and now has replicated these programs in Venezuela and Panama. HIAS also works with the Jewish community and UNHCR in Argentina to resettle refugees from the Colombian conflict.

HIAS leadership visited HIAS programs in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Panama City, Panama; Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela; and Quito, Ibarra, San Lorenzo, and Limones, Ecuador. They saw firsthand how the agency’s humanitarian activities in Latin America allow HIAS to support Jewish communities in distress throughout the region. For example, Venezuela—which previously had no history of anti-Semitism—now is facing an increasingly tense situation of insecurity and anti-Semitic media portrayals, coinciding with the Chavez government’s move toward Iran and away from Israel and the United States. Rising anti-Semitism even can be seen in commercials, such as one viewed by the HIAS delegation that was aired during the World Cup and portrays a soccer match between Israel and Palestine, with a blind UN referee constantly calling penalty shots for Israelis to take against elderly men, children, and pregnant women on the Palestinian team. The commercial ends with the slogan, “It is not a game, it is a massacre. We are all Palestinians.”

As Board member Benita Fair Langsdorf from Philadelphia reported, “HIAS Latin American programs provide a dual purpose, not only permitting us to help other ethnic and religious minorities, but also to “be there” for vital Jewish communities, support their needs in politically volatile countries, and share common values. Visiting and meeting with the Jewish communal leaders reinforced our commitment to assist and support our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as other persecuted minorities. Latin America is a perfect example of our primary mission to provide rescue and resettlement services to Jews, and our extended mission to provide these same services to other persecuted minorities.”

Lee Gordon, of Highland Park, is Vice Chair of the HIAS Board of Directors; Mark Hetfield is HIAS’ Senior Vice President for Programs and Policy.

Comments (1)

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Posted by Brunschwig on April 07, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Arrived in caracas , Venezuela in 1941