Of Note -- Individual Reflections

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Thu, Mar 08, 2007 at 16:44 pm

As the Talmud teaches, “To save one life is to save the entire world and to take one life is to annihilate the entire world.” (Sanhedrin 37a).

While HIAS is proud of our ability to make a difference on a massive scale – hundreds of thousand or millions saved, protected, assisted, resettled, served – I find it powerful at times to stop and think about the individuals – the single lives – that HIAS touches on a daily basis.

This month I wanted to mention four people – from very different backgrounds, and living in very different circumstances – where HIAS has been able to make a real and profound difference in their lives.

M.A. is a 57 year old Syrian Jew whose application for asylum was filed by Simon Wettenhall, HIAS’ accredited representative, in December of 2006. M.A. was arrested on four different occasions by Syrian secret police for Jewish activity, and on one occasion was held in solitary confinement for an entire year. After concluding that he could take no more, he attempted to commit suicide.

Last month HIAS was pleased to receive confirmation that M.A.’s application was granted and he can now legally remain in NY with his wife and children – whose applications were also successfully represented by HIAS.

Orit Rubin, one of HIAS’ Israeli psychosocial care professionals recently reported on an innovative program being run by HIAS for Darfuri refugees in Chad. Orit noted that, “Being a third generation Holocaust survivor, I grew up knowing the impact and necessity of sharing and documenting personal survivor's stories.” “Remember and never forget – so it never happens again…"

HIAS has created a museum of over 180 stories - through word and art - to give the refugees an opportunity to share their stories and memories, offer a form of “release” to reduce stress and post- traumatic symptoms and create a memory bank of personal stories of tragic events in Darfur for future generations.

Describing a refugee from Goz-Amir who expressed support and enthusiasm for the activity, Orit noted that this person said it was a great relief knowing that there were others who cared about their stories and wanted to help them "hold onto it” and remember.

HIAS’ National SSI Initiative strives to assist elderly and disabled individuals in an effort to help them naturalize within the seven-year timeframe and subsequently avoid losing essential Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. This program involves providing counsel and technical assistance to HIAS’ affiliate network, administrative advocacy with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI, legislative advocacy to change the underlying law, consultation with refugees and asylees from around the country and direct assistance and representation in naturalization cases for NY-area clients.

In a recent letter to HIAS, Valentina Vasilyeva expressed deep gratitude to HIAS for representing her when her naturalization papers were lost by DHS. Ms. Vasilyeva wrote, “Natalia Rozova [HIAS’ accredited representative] helped me throughout the entire ordeal. She was able to devote her attention and her time to me and my problems. I am sure that without her help, I would not have been able to resolve my problems... Based on my experience, I am convinced that your program and the help you are able to provide for elderly individuals with naturalization is indispensable...”

Melanie Nezer, HIAS’ migration policy counsel, has taken on the leadership role among DC-based advocates to protect refugees and asylees from the inappropriately broad application of the “material support for terrorist activity” bar on admission into the United States. As part of Melanie’s advocacy, she was quoted in an Appleton Wisconsin editorial decrying the use of the material support bar against Hmong refugees. Melanie declared, “Clearly, it's absurd that people who fought with us — people who have received special exemptions from the law precisely for that conduct — should be barred from coming to the U.S. as refugees as a result of that conduct."

Among the individuals that HIAS is trying to help through this advocacy is the brother-in-law of Hmong refugee and Wisconsin resident, Xee Vang. Ms. Vang’s family is stuck in limbo in a detention center in Thailand and cannot be reunited because of the material support bar. "I think it's unfair and stopping a lot of people who are legitimate refugees, who have sided with the U.S…. It's very emotionally draining and frightening to hear about him and his family," Ms. Vang said.

The work being done, day in and day out, by HIAS staff is a testament to our ability to translate Jewish values into action in the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable migrants. While circumstances vary for Syrian Jewish asylee M.A., the Darfuri refugee seeking to remember and cope with her suffering, Valentina Vasilyeva who will now continue to receive SSI, and Xee Vang and her family who know that they are not alone in the struggle against the material support bar, all have new lives and new hope because of HIAS’ work.

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