World Refugee Day: Their Plight Is Ours Too

In my many years as an educator, I had never seen a classroom as rundown as Moria Refugee Camp’s makeshift school, but I had also never encountered that kind of passion for education.

I have been privileged to witness and support the incredible work being done by Israel’s leading humanitarian aid organization, IsraAID, with first-hand experience on two service trips: one to meet Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece, and one to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. While we came to give, I gained so much more and the experiences left a lasting impression.

Serving as the makeshift home for more than 5,000 refugees, the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos is overcrowded, often dangerous, and waste and filth fill the streets.  Its inhabitants come from some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, Syria and The People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo among others, and huddle in tents, often waiting extended periods of time to receive asylum on the mainland where their lives can finally start anew.  

Upon my arrival, a frigid wind blew down a family’s only shelter. A crowd of people braved the cold to help pick up the pieces and repair the tent. The scene was simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. 

Soon thereafter, I was led into a classroom at the ‘School for Peace’, filled with young children of different nationalities. Though they all lived in this extremely difficult situation, I was astonished to see that their faces were filled with hope.  When I asked who among them loved school, all of their hands shot up without exception. They were simply delighted to have the opportunity to receive an education and were eager to talk, listen and learn. 

Their ability to remain focused and excited about learning while living in one of the most miserable places on earth made it clear to me that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty and make a difference no matter how dire the circumstances. In my many years as an educator, I had never seen such a rundown facility nor such a passion for education from the staff, volunteers and students alike.

Service experiences challenge us to see the world differently. An economic downturn or natural disaster can be the difference between relative prosperity and poverty. The simplest necessities can be taken from us in the blink of an eye and the kindness can be expressed just as rapidly.  

In 2017, Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island and destroyed much of its infrastructure. When I visited on another IsraAID service tour, clean drinking water and electricity were still not readily available. I was struck by how I had never really considered what life would be like without these “luxuries.”  

Thankfully, devoted volunteers stepped forward to build a filtering system to provide safe drinking water for residents impacted by the hurricane.  Some of the volunteers studied water and agriculture in the deserts of Israel and are using what they learned in places like Puerto Rico that are struggling with water scarcity and other issues.  In an effort to “make the desert bloom,” Israel developed technologies that save countless lives around the world and it was incredible to see the know-how put to such great use. 

The people of Israel are constantly reminded to look after others and remember that they were strangers in the Land of Egypt. This memory of displacement and slavery, coupled with our history as ‘the wandering Jews’ evokes our deep compassion for those in similar circumstances in our own lifetime. These two humbling and enlightening encounters brought this biblical command to life for me in a new way.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only seen refugees face new challenges but added many obstacles for the expert organizations and staff who aid them. World Refugee Day this year is a chance for us to remind ourselves of the plight of those who have no place to call home and look at how we can renew the vital operations in the post-COVID era to meet the changing needs of refugees today. In doing so, we strengthen our humanity and play a part in healing the fractured world around us. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy is a founding partner of Israel Impact Partners, which works with funders to accelerate the growth of the non-profits they care about. He is the former CEO of Mosaic United, a strategic partnership between the State of Israel and global Jewry. An oleh from Sydney, Australia, he previously served as the Dean of one of the largest Jewish schools in the world, Moriah College.
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