Ilan Cohn

On World Refugee Day, Jews must stand in solidarity with refugees

In the name of the European Jewish community., HIAS helped 280,000 Ukrainians and 1.35 million people worldwide last year
Refugees, mostly women and children, wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Refugees, mostly women and children, wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

World Refugee Day, observed on 20 June each year, serves as a powerful reminder of the immense challenges faced by millions of individuals who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, fleeing war and persecution worldwide. As Jews, we have a profound responsibility to step forward with compassion and try to make a tangible difference in the lives of those seeking refuge. 

This imperative lies at the heart of my work for HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee agency: throughout the 20th century, we helped hundreds of thousands of European Jews escape pogroms, war, Nazism, and the Soviet Union. 

Today, our commitment to helping refugees manifests itself in 23 countries across the world. A recent priority has been the war in Ukraine, which represents the largest humanitarian crisis on the European continent since World War II. 17.6 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance within Ukraine. Eight million individuals have been displaced beyond the country’s borders, while nearly six million remain internally displaced. 

When conflict erupted in Ukraine, HIAS Europe partnered with Jewish communities to provide food and shelter and to establish “Welcome Circles” across Europe, where volunteers and communities play a pivotal role in the social integration of Ukrainian refugees. In a little more than a year, Welcome Circles in 11 European countries have helped over 800 Ukrainians rebuild their lives in safety, and HIAS Europe has further relocated almost 400 to Europe, Canada and the US.

Saul Woolfson, one of the volunteers who mobilized to welcome Ukrainian refugees from the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, shared his experience: “When it was refugee work and volunteering for refugees, we had a phenomenal response and […] the people we found coming to our events, donating, driving, were the people who were not connected to synagogues […] we managed to reach out to members at the periphery of our community, who are now more likely to be involved.”

There is hardly a single Jewish community in Europe that did not mobilize in one form or another in support of Ukrainian refugees. Some collected secondhand items, others engaged in fundraising, and many others drove around refugees, helped them navigate local bureaucracy, taught local languages, or simply hosted newcomers for a Shabbat meal. Some communities stepped up during the emergency response, and others made long-term commitments like the Jewish communities in Warsaw and Chisinau. In the latter case, the community even permanently established a Humanitarian Aid Centre, integrated within the Jewish Community.  

Some Jewish communities have focused on assisting Jewish Ukrainians, for whom they have a natural understanding of their social integration needs. But a few European Jewish communities have acted more broadly to support refugees of different backgrounds. HIAS, as a Jewish and humanitarian organization, welcomes this wholeheartedly: the humanitarian principle requires we respond to human suffering wherever it is found, without making distinctions based on religion.  

This World Refugee Day, we are reminded that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was just one of many crises that have pushed the number of displaced people globally to record highs. Food insecurity, climate-change-related natural disasters, and protracted conflict have together resulted in the forced displacement of more than 100 million people worldwide. While Ukraine absorbs much media, political and donor attention, we at HIAS are committed to continuing our response to other major humanitarian crises. In Latin America, migrants and refugees are facing high risks of gender-based violence, gang violence, and human trafficking. In Africa, Chad is struggling to care for almost 100,000 newly arrived refugees escaping war in Sudan. HIAS is responding to these crises with lifesaving assistance in the name of the European Jewish community.  

The scale of the global crisis can seem insurmountable. Yet, the outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees – that we have witnessed across Europe – reaffirms our faith in the Jewish community’s capacity for welcome. Today, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to the individual communities and congregations, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America, whose unwavering support has enabled us to provide vital services to 280,000 Ukrainians and 1.35 million individuals worldwide in 2022.

About the Author
Ilan Cohn is based in Brussels and is the Director of HIAS Europe. For the past two decades he worked on migration at the international level through a number of intergovernmental organizations, as well as through JDC and the Center for International Migration and Integration in Israel.