My People Were Refugees, Too

Wearing a large button that says “My People Were Refugees Too,” I attended a Hadassah chapter meeting in Jerusalem this week. Most people who saw the button knew it was to protest the deportation of African refugees from Israel. They commented positively and even asked where they could get such a button. One woman, however, said, “If that’s about the refugee situation here, we are on opposing sides.” I replied rather hotly that I really could not understand how any Jew could be opposed to helping refugees. She didn’t answer and turned her back on me.

It is ironic that this exchange took place just before the program began, featuring a speaker who was a child refugee during the Holocaust. When the speaker was less than three years old, her parents sent her and her sister from Nazi Germany to be given refuge in Belgium. After the parents caught up with their two children in Antwerp, the family continued to flee the Nazis and were refugees in France, then Spain, then Portugal, then Cuba, then the United States — finally ending up in Israel.

As I listened, I kept wondering if the woman who had criticized my button and my views had two separate parts of her brain, one for Jews and one for Africans. I kept looking at my button, issued by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped Holocaust refugees and now has broadened its mission to help other refugees.

The speaker had been a toddler when her parents sent her out of Germany. I recently met a a charming toddler at the Kuchinate African Refugee Women’s Collective in Tel Aviv. Eritrean, Sudanese, and Ethiopian refugee women come there to crochet, socialize, eat meals together, and make baskets that earn them a small income. The Kuchinate (crochet in Tigrinya) Collective was founded in 2011 by clinical psychologist Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, who works with Aziza Kidane, an Eritrean nun.

Under the guidance of Israeli artist Gil Yefman, four of these refugee women have made huge baskets that will be an art installation as part of Remember the Women Institute’s group art exhibition, VIOLATED! Women in Holocaust and Genocide, opening at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City on April 12. These refugee women not only suffered in their native countries, but faced harrowing circumstances, including rape, as they made their way across the desert to refuge in Israel. Exhibition curator Dr. Batya Brutin and I have gone to the Kuchinate workshop several times, visiting with the women and some of their children.

One of the little girls at the workshop, about the age of the speaker when she was sent from Nazi Germany to Belgium, was particularly enchanting. As I think about these two toddlers, one Jewish in 1938 and one Eritrean in 2018, to me they are both small children who needed rescue and refuge. I cannot understand how it is possible to have sympathy for a Jewish child refugee fleeing the Holocaust and not for all other refugees everywhere today — children, women, and men.

About the Author
Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel is founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute, co-editor of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, and Exhibition Coordinator for VIOLATED! Women in Holocaust and Genocide. See www.rememberwomen.org.
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