The Call to Get Going
I don’t know if it was the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, or in broad daylight.
I don’t know if it was by sea, in some rickety raft, or over land, in an overcrowded truck.
I don’t know if the decision to leave was sudden, or the product of too many nights spent hearing bombs explode nearby, too many days spent in bomb shelters with anxious children who no longer had a school to go to.
But this I know—a Mom, a Dad, two little girls and a baby set off from Aleppo, Syria in 2014, and took refuge in Istanbul, Turkey.
During the time they were in Turkey, the baby was diagnosed with leukemia. He and his Mom spent over a year in a hospital, where he received chemotherapy––and where they other family members were not allowed to visit. The girls stayed inside in a home with countless other displaced relatives—still no school was available for them—while the Dad worked laying tile, as he had done back home.
I do know this: the Mom, Dad, and three kids KNEW they had to GET OUT. They didn’t know where they would land, and they didn’t know what would become of them. They just knew that they could not stay in a city where bombs fell constantly, where more buildings were destroyed each day, and where power, food and gas were only sporadically available.
Get Going: Avram and Sarai’s Call
This Syrian family heard the call: get going. So, too, did our ancestors, Avram and Sarai in this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha. This man and woman were going about their lives in Haran, thinking that things would always stay the same—Avram would work in his father’s idol-making shop, Sarai would pine for the children she never had, and they would be safe and sound. But one day, the call came to Avram: Lech lecha—get going…the text could have said “leave home,” but it specifies me-artzecha, me-moladetecha, u’mebeyt avicha…leave your land, your birthplace, your parents’ home—so much to lose, so much to long for. But get going you must…el ha-aretz asher ar’echa…to an unspecified location you will be shown at a later time.
Avram and Sarai traveled to the land of Canaan, wandered around a bit, and finally pitched their tent in Beth El, and offered sacrifices to God. Thank God, they must have thought…we are home. But this did not last for long—a famine descended on their new home, and they were forced to leave once again—and set off for sustenance to Egypt. The word the text uses for this sojourn is lagur—related to the word ger (stranger)—Avram and Sarai became gerim, strangers in a strange land.
Get Going: Today’s Gerim
The Syrian family, and Avram and Sarai were not alone. Every day, thousands of Moms, Dads, grandparents and kids hear the call: lech lecha—get going. Someone is displaced from their home somewhere in the world every two seconds. They leave because of violence and war, because of persecution and famine. There are now 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced due to persecution and violence. 25.4 million of those are refugees. Most of the remainder are internally displaced within the borders of their own countries. Of the refugees, only a tiny fraction are resettled to “third countries.” The US, until quite recently, led the world in refugee resettlement. Many of us owe our US citizenship to the open doors this country presented. Our country was, for much of its life, a beacon of welcome.
Until we closed our doors. The current administration has cut the annual ceiling on refugees to be welcomed from 210,000 under President Obama to 50,000 then 45,000 and now, as of last month, 30,000. This is the lowest number of refugees to be admitted to the US since Refugee Resettlement Act passed in 1980. The doors have also swung shut in the faces of asylum seekers (those who have fled home due to violence and warfare, who have not been officially certified as refugees). The so-called Zero Tolerance Policy, as you know, resulted in over 2000 children being ripped from their parents and taken to “baby jails.” Of these, a couple of hundred are still languishing without the tender care of their mothers and fathers, awaiting an uncertain fate. This policy violated nternational law, which requires a nation to protect asylum seekers. The doors have been shut in the faces of children fleeing poverty and violence, who have crossed our borders alone. Over 13,000 children are in detention in facilities without access to education or legal representation—unlike under previous administrations, when such kids would be in care of sponsoring families), family detention.
Our Call: How Will We Get Going to Welcome the Stranger?
This week’s Haftarah has beautiful, tender words. The prophet Isaiah promises that, “Each one of you will help the other, saying to your brother, your sister, be strong.” What can we do to offer our hands and our help to today’s Avram and Sarai’s, the refugees and asylum seekers who wish for what we were afforded—an opportunity to make a life in a safe and free land? What will we do to answer the call, lech lecha—get going!?! I want to offer three ways we can answer the call to GET GOING.
First, we can become friends to refugees-through HIAS-PA, 15 or so volunteers from our congregation became friends to the Syrian family I described earlier. Our community is so blessed with love, and skill and talent! Members of our Welcome Team helped the family to navigate extraordinarily complex bureaucratic labrynths to help them obtain healthcare for the child with leukemia, a daughter who is legally blind, and the father who suffers from arthritis. Welcome Team members helped to move the legally blind daughter from a public school 50 minutes from home, where there were 40 kids in a classroom, and where it was so dangerous she was afraid to go to the restroom, to a Catholic school 20 minutes from home, where she is cherished, protected, and learning in a class with 3 other students. Welcome Team members provided countless hours of English tutoring to the mother and father, rides to the hospital, friendly visits at home and at the hospital, where the boy with leukemia was taken immediately upon their arrival in Philadelphia.
And stuff…the family needed stuff, and our Welcome Team drew upon the endless generosity of our community to get what they needed. Two tiny examples: in their first summer in Philadelphia, our family found their tiny apartment was unbearably hot. They asked us if we could get them window air conditioners. We put out a call over the congregational email lists, and, within one day, we had received 7 offers of air conditioners! On another occasion, when the son was finally being released from the hospital after seven months, the family had an urgent need for a carseat for him. I wrote a message on the list serve, and, within 10 minutes, a carseat appeared on my doorstep! Such hesed, such boundless love!
Today, our Syrian friends are in a different world: the eldest daughter is doing fabulously in 9th grade at a magnet school where a member of our congregation is a very active volunteer; the middle daughter, who is legally blind, is a happy, successful student and has learned to use an electronic reader provided by the Eye Institute to do her schoolwork; the boy who had leukemia is in remission. Now he is a kindergarten student at the neighborhood school, boisterous, mischievous and happy and healthy. The Dad is working at a neighborhood grocery store, and the Mom is ecstatically caring for their new baby, born this summer. They have received Green Cards, and are delighted to be making their life in our country.
Second, we can answer the call through advocacy: HIAS is urging us to offer comments on three devastatingly cruel policies currently being proposed by the administration. If there is overwhelming public opposition, perhaps we can prevent these “evil decrees” from taking effect. Here’s what you can do:
- Oppose the proposed rule which would end adherence to the Flores Settlement, and allow indefinite detention of children. You can learn more and make a comment here.
- Oppose the proposed “public charge” rule, which would bar immigrants who have received any kind of public assistance, even Children’s Health Insurance or Head Start, from pursuing citizenship. Learn more and make a comment here.
- Oppose the proposed change to fee waivers, which have allowed low income immigrants to be exempted from the $2000 fee to apply for permanent residency or citizenship. Learn more and make a comment here.
Finally, we can answer the call by donating to HIAS—both the national organization, which engages in advocacy and works with refugees in locations around the world to help them to be able to come to the US, and to HIAS-PA, which offers extensive and capable legal assistance to refugees and immigrants, as well as social services, housing and all kinds of support to refugees and asylees in our community.
When we help refugees, whether in a hands-on fashion here at home, or through advocacy or financial help, we are helping to fulfill the words of the Psalm: olam hesed yibaneh:
I will build this world from love…
You will build this world from love,
If we build this world from love,
Then God will build this world from love.
–English lyrics and music by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, based on Psalms 89:3
Ken yehi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.