With 12 million Syrians forced from their homes in the past four years, the refugee crisis has hit levels not seen since World War II.
For Jewish charities in the field, September 3 was a turning point.
That was the day multiple media outlets published photographs of a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi, showing his small body washed up on shore, lying face-down in the sand. His family was fleeing Syria when the boat transporting them capsized. The photos sparked outrage across the world, and galvanized public reaction.
“The American Jewish community really woke up to the crisis,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement at HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a 134-year-old organization that works to protect refugees, referring to the photograph.
“It’s been an amazing moment,” she said. HIAS had already been working with Syrian refugees for two years. “For HIAS, what’s new is that people are paying attention.”
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, echoed this.
“It simply was not resonating with American Jews,” he said of interest in the crisis. “With that photo, things did change overnight.”
Donations have surged. By this time last year, HIAS had received money from 4,200 donors. But so far this year, 9,300 donors — more than twice as many — have given. Call volume has been huge with callers asking
how to adopt or sponsor a family. Hundreds of rabbis reached out to inquire how they could take up the issue with their congregants. And many, Rosenn said, used their High Holiday sermons to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis.
She explained that, rather than working in Syria, HIAS focuses on
During the High Holidays, HIAS received $1 million for the crisis.
political lobbying to raise the numbers of refugees admitted to the United States, and then on helping them once they land.
Will Recant, assistant executive vice president at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, referred to the publication of the photographs on September 3 as a landmark.
“It reinvigorated the Coalition,” he said, referring to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a 19-year-old group run by the JDC. “All of the Jewish organizations for Syrian refugee coalitions amped up programs and projects.”
This includes providing psychosocial assistance like trauma counseling, and direct assistance like food, shelter and medicine. In August, the JDC had expanded its efforts to Europe as the migrants poured into such countries as Hungary and Turkey. Over the past two years the coalition has raised $1,150,000 specifically for Syrian refugees. During the High Holidays alone, HIAS received $1 million for the crisis.
Both organizations stressed the unpredictability of the situation and how they are working day to day.
“It’s frustrating,” Recant said. “It’s difficult because there are no systems in place to handle many aspects of this emergency.” He noted, however, that the job of setting up programs should fall to local governments and organizations like the European Union and UNICEF.
“What’s really needed is the political pressure,” Rosenn said.
Hetfield emphasized HIAS’s focus on advocacy: providing tools to petition Congress and President Obama to increase the numbers of refugees allowed in the country.
“The administration’s response has been lackluster compared to other countries,” Hetfield said. But both he and Rosenn said they remain hopeful about the renewed interest among American Jews.
“This is a historic moment. The Jews, who have been a refugee people over and over again, are no longer refugees, but are in a position to change the future,” Rosenn said.
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow.