This week, my idea of refugees was transformed

We have our own forgotten refugee crisis. We may remember how many times in recent years we reminded ourselves to ‘care for the stranger.’ This short mitzvah rightly drives us again and again to the conclusion that we cannot stand by while individuals from distant lands, refugees, are forced to flee their homes.

Alongside this motivation, as Jews, we have a powerful sense of ‘this is us’, that when we see vulnerable people in Calais, or across Europe, we see ourselves.

My visit this week to Ukraine with World Jewish Relief has totally transformed my image of refugees. Jewish refugees are not a thing of the past, and not only a logical and emotional motivation to help those escaping from Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere. Jewish refugees are now, today – in their thousands in Ukraine.

If we feel that Jewish refugees of previous generations are reason enough to help today’s refugees, then what greater responsibility we must have for Jews who are suffering now.

I met Tatiana from Donetsk, who fled in August 2014 with her two children and a small rucksack each, as her locality was shelled during the conflict.

When she arrived in Kiev she heard that many of her friends back home had been beaten, one into a coma.

This strong 48-year-old woman appeared in Ukraine’s capital as a total stranger – she knew no one. World Jewish Relief provided her with training, psychological assistance, and the skills needed to find work.

She is now a masseuse with private clients. As she talked to us, through a translator, she hold both hands to her chest and expresses her gratitude for her training and new life.

Her story is a typical situation of having to flee out of desperation.

Tatiana showing a picture of her family as they are now in Kiev.

Nadya (not her real name) told me her powerful story. Her family ran a coffee shop in her hometown, 800 km from Kiev, a hub for the local Jewish community, now abandoned. Mikhael (not his real name), also from Donetsk, told me how empowering it felt to “learn how to protect myself as an employee and as a person”.

These are Jews in Ukraine, refugees just a three hour-flight from London.

We also visited Babi Yar in north west Kiev, where more than 33,000 Jews were massacred in just two days in 1941.

The Jews led to their fate at Babi Yar took with them their keys and left belongings at home. Their expectation was that they would one day return.

The same goes for refugees from the east, both Jews and non-Jews – one day they too hope to return, but so many buildings and lives have been shattered.

Our community has responded admirably to the cry of non-Jewish refugees in Europe, and I am proud that we continue that work. However, the Jewish experience that often drives us is not history.

Yes, we should help the stranger, but we should also help those even closer to home, and to our hearts. “Im ein ani li mi li.” If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

About the Author
Rabbi Janner-Klausner grew up in London; worked as an educator in Jerusalem for 15 years working with Jews and as dialogue facilitator trainer of Palestinians and Israelis. She is the Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism in the UK.
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