(courtesy Lee Bycel)
In 2003, Rabbi Lee Bycel was listening to a radio broadcast about the beginnings of the genocide in Darfur. “Something about it hit me on a very personal level,” Bycel recalled. Rather than just shaking his head, “I thought, ‘Lee, what are you going to do?’”
It turns out that moment 16 years ago, marked a turning point in his life. After many years as a humanitarian and social justice activist, Bycel looked to turn up his involvement. And ever since that moment, Bycel has been on something of a refugee awareness mission. He has visited refugee camps in Darfur, Chad, South Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Haiti, and has written about refugees for years.
This year, Bycel, 70, has turned to telling the world about refugees by telling their stories. His new book, Refugees in America, allows the unique voices of 11 refugees to tell about their lives and struggles and is Bycel’s way of humanizing terrible events and getting readers to understand and get involved. Bycel said he is very pleased that HIAS provides ways for people to take action; part of the proceeds from book sales will be donated to HIAS.
“We have forgotten the human element,” he said. “Everyone has a story. The refugee story and the human story is about loss.”
Each chapter focuses on an individual from a different country, and while the stories are harrowing, they are also hopeful and thought-provoking.
Deng Ajak Jongkuch was one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan who walked thousands of miles and was in a refugee camp for years before he came to the United States. In the book he explains why he wants his story known: “There is too much hurt inside of me, I need people to learn from my experience,” he said. “I want to let them know that refugees are human, like any other human being. It just happens that this person is called a refugee, there’s a reason that he became a refugee.”
Bycel, who served on the Board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Committee on Conscience from 2014-2019, and is currently the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Ethics and Refugees Studies at the University of San Francisco, believes in the power of the refugee story to affirm life.
“Statistics don’t touch us,” he said. “It’s the human narrative that motivates us.”
What Bycel really wants people to do is not just read the book but to be inspired by the stories and turn to action. Today we are all “bombarded by crisis,” he says, but we have to figure out how to move through that and think boldly about new and creative ways to help refugees.
Bycel is on a national book tour right now, visiting colleges and bookstores and synagogues, happy to speak to different audiences, because you never know when someone might be inspired.