Of Note: Thanksgiving 2009 ... HIAS and America -- Service, Welcome, and Gratitude

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Mon, Nov 23, 2009 at 9:46 am

With Thanksgiving soon approaching, my thoughts are drawn to the tremendous amount I have to be grateful for – both as an American and as a person who has the privilege to serve the Jewish community and the global humanitarian movement through my work at HIAS, the American Jewish community’s international migration agency. Reflecting on HIAS’ work over the past year, I am struck by how much our country’s welcome for newcomers underscores the powerful gifts that the United States provides its citizens and the world.

This year HIAS, working with a broad coalition of national and local Jewish groups, organized the rescue and resettlement of 60 Yemeni Jewish refugees and represented numerous others in asylum proceedings. These Jews faced growing danger and violence in their homeland after the murder of a leading community member in December 2008 and the series of attacks and threats that followed. No longer able to stay in the country they called home for thousands of years, these Jews now live in New York, where they are safe and able to practice their faith freely. HIAS and our Jewish community partners received compassionate support from the U.S. government, which rose to the challenge and expedited the processing program to get the Yemeni Jews out of harm’s way. Just one example of America’s tradition of protecting religious freedom in action, these Yemeni Jews can now openly fulfill the commandment to attach a mezuzah to the outside of their homes. They can do this without fear that anti-Semitic neighbors and local rebel groups will destroy their sacred objects and target them because of their religion.

In addition to the Yemeni Jewish asylum seekers helped this year, HIAS also represented many others through our HIAS-Prins Asylum Program. This program was created through the generosity of the estate of Vivian Prins, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose will stipulated that his assets be used to assist immigrant artists, scientists, scholars, and professionals. Through this program HIAS assists victims of persecution of all faiths and backgrounds who are seeking refuge in the United States. Among those we have helped were two musicians who meld traditional music from their authoritarian homeland with contemporary rock sounds to create a unique art form. As an activist trained in the Soviet Jewry movement of the 1980s and 90s, these stories of our asylum clients, though neither Jewish nor from the Soviet Union, are uncannily familiar to me: official bans on performance, unauthorized publication of politically-oriented work, surveillance and harassment by the police, constant fear of the arrest, and yearning for freedom. We are grateful that America’s commitment to free expression of ideas and tradition of offering asylum to the persecuted permits these young musicians to use their energy and talents to create their art and work for democracy in their homeland.

While we continue to wish, work, and pray for a time when all the problems facing the Jewish community and the peoples of the world are solved, one of the United States’ most precious gifts is its capacity for change, improvement, and reform. A poignant case that HIAS confronted this year was that of Wesal Adam, a four and half year old Darfuri girl who was separated from her parents for more than two years because of a technical loophole in American immigration law. Because Wesal was conceived after her father was granted asylum, she was not permitted to join her parents in New York as the daughter of a refugee. HIAS called on the United States government to act with compassion and grant the child humanitarian parole, the family’s last chance to be reunited. And, working with Wesal’s pro-bono attorney – an active member of HIAS Young Leaders and child of a Jewish refugee from Germany – we were successful. (Read the NY Times article and our press release, or see video footage of the reunion). Moreover, HIAS’ team of DC advocates has made great progress in Congress to close this loophole. We remain hopeful that the law will soon be changed so that hundreds of families, many just like Wesal Adam’s, will not have to face years of uncertainly, fear, and separation.

Finally, at Thanksgiving I am deeply grateful to Sergey Brin, a former HIAS-assisted refugee and co-founder of Google, for making a landmark gift of $1,000,000 as the cornerstone of HIAS’ new development and outreach initiative. Sergey’s gift – and the way he discussed his motivations in the New York Times and on his personal blog – are wonderful testaments to HIAS’ role in the life of the Brin family, and by extension each of the 4.5 million refugees and immigrants HIAS has assisted over our history. It also speaks to the amazing opportunities that America provides to newcomers. In very few places could a six-year-old refugee boy fleeing religious discrimination and persecution have a chance to change the world and become one of the greatest technological and business successes of his era. American values of entrepreneurship and pluralism allow refugees and immigrants from around the world to thrive, to add their own cultures to the complex mosaic of American society and, like Sergey, to give back to the country that welcomed them.

And so, I feel gratitude on Thanksgiving on so many different levels. I give thanks for the core values of the United States and for the society they have shaped. I give thanks for the energy that courageous and creative refugees and immigrants bring to their new homeland. And I give thanks for the opportunity that HIAS provides me: to serve the highest values of my Jewish community and country, at home and abroad, helping to repair our broken world.

Wishing you and your family a most happy Thanksgiving.

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