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Forum explains plight of refugees to Jewish community

Rabbi Daniel Kirzane presented the Jewish history of refugees at a community forum on refugee resettlement held Monday night at the Jewish Community Campus.

“Things are substantively different in the world,” said Hilary Cohen Singer, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). “Refugees are a big topic today.”

Singer made this comment at a community forum for refugee resettlement Monday night at the Jewish Community Campus. The event attracted about 75 people, requiring organizers to set up about 25 additional chairs. It was sponsored by the Rabbinical Association, Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), Jewish Family Services, Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee and area congregations.

JVS defines a refugee as a person with a well-rounded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion and has been forced to flee his or her country. The evening’s agenda was to explain what refugees go through to be able to move to the U.S. and to Kansas City.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were about 22.4 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2015. JVS resettled nearly 500 refugees in Kansas City in 2015, over 500 in 2016 thus far and are expecting to exceed those numbers in 2017. 

Eighty-one percent of JVS cases in 2015 were families. They have taken in refugees from all over the world — including: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Birundi, Burma, Central African Republic, Cuba, Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan. 

At Monday night’s discussion, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah reminded the audience that Jews were once refugees as well in the land of Egypt.

“Throughout history, we have been the refugee,” said Rabbi Kirzane. 

He pointed out the Torah, in Exodus 22:20, also reminds people that the Jews were strangers in a foreign land.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the Torah states. 

Along with presentations by Rabbi Kirzane and Singer, three panelists shared their stories about being refugees and escaping from their war-torn homelands.

Majid Moura came to the U.S. three months ago. He worked for coalition forces back in Iraq, fled to Turkey, then went back to Iraq before coming to the U.S. His reaction to the U.S., especially the Midwest, came as a shock.

“Nice people here, I never have seen a big smile before,” Moura said with a big smile on his face. 

Abdul Nasi ABdulbaqi is from Afghanistan and started working when he was 10 years old. He became an interpreter and befriended a U.S. Army general, who was stationed in Afghanistan. He then became a huge help for the U.S. army, helping translate between the troops and citizens of Afghanistan.

“I’ll help you and you help me,” ABdulbaqi said to the Army general. He came over to the U.S. two months ago and said that he is so happy and thankful to be here. 

Kenyan Amina Awo has been in the U.S. for 20 years. When given the microphone to share her story, she let her emotions go.

“I remember my uncle getting killed and a lot of sad stuff,” Awo said, her voice trailing off as tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m very blessed to be here away from all of the violence. I’m very blessed to be here, that I have the opportunity to educate my soul and to educate my children.” 

After sharing their stories of coming to the U.S., the floor was opened for questions. JVS’ Singer started off asking the three panelists what surprised them about the U.S.

Awo said she was in third grade when she came here and spoke no English. She recalled that she was bullied by other kids for not being able to speak the language.

Moura realized the moment he stepped into the Kansas City airport that a lot of nice people were here to help him.

ABdulbaqi was transitioning to the time change and slept on his first day in Kansas City. His answer created laughter from the audience and now, he says he sleeps normal like everyone else, getting a couple of people to applaud him for the humor. 

Gail Weinberg, who was in attendance of the event, remarked how each of the three panelists said the same thing in terms of why they left and why they would not return to their former homelands.

“They all said the same thing, for them, it was the fear and that things weren’t going to change. It’s just the cultures,” said Weinberg. “It is a worldwide problem and right now, the world is turning their back on it.”

Currently, 65.3 million people are displaced due to war and persecution. The UNHCR says that 34,000 people per day are forced to flee their homes. Many refugees live in refugee camps for an average of 15 years and only 2 percent get resettled. 

The process for refugees like the evening’s three panelists to come to the U.S. is no easy task. Certain criteria need to be met in order to resettle the refugees who come into the U.S. According to whitehouse.gov, that criteria includes: Legal and physical protection needs, survivors of violence and torture, medical needs, women-at-risk, family reunification, children and adolescents, elderly refugees and a lack of local integration prospects.

So far, there have been approximately 66,500 refugees who have resettled in the United States. JVS has helped resettle more than 4,500 refugees since 2004. In Kansas City, many of the refugees are resettled in the northeast part of the city, along Independence Ave. That area was also once home to Jewish immigrants 

JVS continues to help and support refugees who come into Kansas City. But the agency can’t do it without community support. If you would like to volunteer, you can visit the agency’s website, www.jvskc.org. Furniture and clothing for new refugees are also accepted, as well as monetary donations.