Putting it in Perspective: Crossing Cultures

Posted by Thuy-Anh Vo on Tue, Jun 05, 2012 at 10:12 am

In March, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the 2012 HIAS Board of Directors and Young Leaders Advocacy Mission in Washington, DC. It was inspiring to see individuals who are passionate about the same issues get together to promote HIAS’ advocacy goals and to further educate the Washington policy community about HIAS’ work. It was also incredible to see the program come together after weeks of planning and finalizing details.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is an organization based on Jewish values with a focus on a shared history of migration. HIAS has historically provided rescue and refuge for persecuted and oppressed Jews around the world, and today HIAS assists refugees from all faith backgrounds in a dozen countries worldwide. HIAS’ advocacy work is both interfaith and secular; immigration and refugee policies affect a variety of marginalized populations. For example, while researching legislative history on the Lautenberg Amendment, I learned that this Amendment, which assists religious minorities in the former Soviet Union and Iran, has also helped many Vietnamese refugees.

Throughout history, Jews have identified with the margins of society and have known what it means to be an immigrant, refugee, or a “stranger.” It is through this consciousness that HIAS is compassionate towards others, being a voice for Jews and non-Jews alike. As a student at a Jesuit University, I have always been taught to be a “woman for others” and to utilize my privileges for social justice. HIAS promotes the Jewish values of aiding the oppressed and welcoming the stranger. The more I learn about other cultures, the more I realize the multitude of commonalities that exist between them, despite the differences in geographic location, language, and skin color.

During the HIAS Advocacy Mission, guest speaker Marita Dresner spoke at the “Unconventional Refugees” luncheon. She shared her experiences of working in refugee camps after World War II. Even though her story and situation was completely different from my family’s story, her description of the plight of refugees was still similar. Ms. Dresner spoke about the spies in Russia, and my maternal grandfather was a spy in Vietnam for the U.S. government. Ms. Dresner also spoke about the ways in which Jewish refugees had to prove that they were Jewish by being asked questions about Jewish holidays and culture. This reminded me of my father’s story as an Amerasian, the son of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier. After the Amerasian Homecoming Act, Amerasian children born before 1982 were allowed to come to the United States. The only way officials could tell that an individual was Amerasian was through physical appearance. In both of these instances, these oppressed individuals faced the injustice of others defining them, rather than having the freedom to define themselves.

At the HIAS Advocacy Mission, I was asked quite frequently whether I was Jewish and why I decided to work at HIAS since I am not. It was a good question. While researching for internships this spring, I have to confess that I skipped over the HIAS job posting quite a few times. I do not know what it was that finally got me to go back to the posting and apply for it. I figured that at least it would be interview practice and maybe I should broaden my horizons. After meeting the DC staff and checking out the website, I knew that I wanted to intern at HIAS. Despite the other options that I had, I wanted to work at HIAS because I wanted a challenge, and I have always believed that intercultural dialogue was the best guarantee of a more just and peaceful world. Working at HIAS was an opportunity to live out one of my values. The only way to combat prejudice would be to learn about other perspectives and perhaps share my own. At a Jewish organization, I am without a doubt outside of my comfort zone, but by the end of the semester, I expect to have a more genuine understanding of another culture and religion, maybe even a little Yiddish!
 

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