When I opened the new European office of HIAS, the international Jewish refugee agency, in Belgium’s capital late last year, I thought I knew the challenges ahead of me: reaching out to the formal EU institutions and giving European Jewish communities and individuals an option to engage on global humanitarian and forced displacement issues through a Jewish lens. After rescuing persecuted European Jews and helping them resettle in countries where they can be safe and rebuild their lives, HIAS, founded in the 1880s as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now is working to assist Christian, Muslim and other refugees from around the world.
Like almost all other life in Europe, COVID-19 gave new meaning to this mission and constructed new obstacles. Our refugee Shabbat activities around Europe, which were to provide space for congregations and Jewish groups to dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees, moved online. Our Refugee Seder, as well as other community engagement activities planned before the summer, were all cancelled. The Refugee Aid Service Corps, a program placing European Jewish student leaders over the summer months in HIAS Field Offices in Africa and Latin America, was frozen.
Despite these obstacles, we are still continuing our work to prevent, mitigate, and reduce the spread of COVID-19 among refugee communities by equipping them with critical information about the virus, how to access their rights to medical care, and how to remain safe. We are also finding ways to remotely deliver our services, including providing pertinent information to refugees, assessing their critical needs, and providing one-on-one counseling.
Indeed, refugees risk the most. They live in overcrowded and often unhygienic conditions with poor health services and limited access to clean water. They do not have the luxury of “social distancing”. In Greece for example, HIAS works with refugees and asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos. At the beginning of March, the Greek government suspended new asylum applications and sent troops to the Turkish border to block refugees. Refugee movements have been restricted, leaving them exposed to the disease in overcrowded, dirty camps. While only one case has been recorded on the five Greek islands that shelter 42,000 refugees, experts say the coronavirus will spread uncontrollably if it reaches the camps. HIAS Greece joined other leading humanitarian agencies in calling on the Greek government to move asylum seekers to safety.
Jews understand the dangers facing refugees, particularly during pandemics. Of all peoples, they should be cautious to avoid blaming foreigners for illness. Throughout our history, Jews themselves were widely blamed for the plague, or Black Death, devastating the peoples of Europe in the 14th century.
Our upcoming Passover holiday is amongst the oldest symbolic representations of the Jewish people’s historic refugee experience. For much of our history, we were migrants ourselves, fleeing persecution, conflict and hunger. As more people are displaced by violence and persecution than ever before, these powerful symbols of both the unimaginable suffering and the boundless resilience and hope of refugees feel particularly poignant.
This year the health crisis will prevent many families from gathering together for the seder. While families will be dispersed in different locations, this year’s seder offers a timely opportunity to reflect on the limits to our freedom – and the dangers facing others, like refugees. For Passover, HIAS is offering, free-of-charge its own Haggadah. The book explores the “connection between the ancient Passover story and today’s refugees.” We may be under stay-at-home orders for this year’s holiday. My own family will be in Israel and the Netherlands, while I celebrate in Brussels. Together, via Zoom, at the end of our virtual seder this year, we will chant, Next year in Jerusalem — hopefully without a 14-day quarantine.
HIAS continues to update its COVID-19 Response page frequently. Check here for the latest updates.