Imagine you’re a 17-year-old boy from abroad whose parents have both belief in the value of education and the means to achieve it — sufficient means to send you to a private boarding school in the United States for high school as the first step to an American university education.
As your senior year approaches, your homeland becomes too dangerous a place for your wealthy parents and siblings to remain, and they, too, come to the United States. But they’re refugees, deprived of their wealth and belongings and the ability to pay college tuition even for a school where you’ve managed to qualify as an in-state student. Despite now living a vastly reduced lifestyle in a faraway city, where you’ve helped them resettle because you’ve been here for a few years, the family faith in education and the determination that you will succeed endures.
But it doesn’t pay for college. You’ve applied for every scholarship you learn about. You would gladly take a job, but you can’t yet work legally because of your immigration status. One day a family you’ve met through their daughter, another student at your private school, tells you there’s funding through a community whose religion and practices are very different from yours, but they welcome you and want to help.
Are you a Jewish boy from Austria in 1938 who’s connected with a righteous Christian group? No, you’re a Muslim boy from Afghanistan in 2022, who will enroll at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee thanks to support from the Jewish Community Fund for Refugees at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. It is a fund established by anonymous donors as a grassroots resource to aid refugees directly or to compensate volunteers who incur significant personal expenditures helping resettlement efforts.
The fund is only one part of the grassroots support system in Milwaukee’s Jewish community. Last month’s Chronicle highlighted the daily hands-on efforts of volunteers working through two Milwaukee synagogue HIAS Welcome Circles — one at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun and the other at Congregation Shir Hadash — as well as individual members of Congregation Sinai and other organizations. Previous Chronicle reporting featured the work of Jewish Social Services in Madison, an affiliate of HIAS, formerly known as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS is the organization that since 1881 has assisted countless Jewish families fleeing persecution and has shifted its focus to other refugee groups in recent times.
Like HIAS, those of us who assist and advocate for non-Jewish refugees do so because of the frequent and ongoing plight of our own people as strangers in strange lands. Empathy for those seeking freedom from persecution is a Jewish value mentioned in the Torah at least 36 times. Like Jews who benefitted from “righteous Gentiles” — ordinary individuals, as well as some faith-based organizations — this Afghan student and others from his country, Ukraine, Myanmar and countless other hot spots of ethnic persecution and warfare appreciate that their lives have been saved. They welcome the opportunity to support themselves and contribute to their new country.
The Chronicle has been a beacon spotlighting individual grassroots volunteer and synagogue efforts in the local Jewish community that have supported Afghans since their wave of immigration began last fall. The tasks have ranged from donating household goods to driving to and from school and work to arranging for benefits to playing with children to … whatever it takes to make people who have fled their homes in fear feel welcomed, secure and productive in their new surroundings. Two young men in the Shir Hadash Welcome Circle also hope to enter UWM soon.
The big-picture situation is also important. HIAS leads advocacy aimed at easing the pathway for refugees to resettle in the United States. Our congressional representatives and senators need to hear Jewish voices supporting legislation to welcome strangers and give them the legal rights to thrive here.
The gap between a Jewish boy from Austria in 1938 and a Muslim boy from Afghanistan in 2022 is not as wide as we think.
Linda Frank is a co-founder of Wisconsin Jews for Refugees and a core member of the Welcome Circle at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. Frank’s opinions are her own and they do not necessarily represent the views of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.
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How to help
- The grassroots effort known as Jewish Community Fund for Refugees at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation aids refugees directly or compensates volunteers who incur significant personal expenditures helping resettlement efforts. Contribute at MilwaukeeJewish.org/FundGift. Contact Wisconsin Jews for Refugees at WisconsinJewsForRefugees@gmail.com
- Milwaukee Jewish Federation is hosting a webinar on how to assist Ukrainians, fleeing war, who come to Wisconsin. Here’s how you can get involved. Included will be a brief overview of the Ukrainians who have applied to enter the U.S., how to formally sponsor newcomers and how to start a Welcome Circle. Speakers from Jewish Family Services, HIAS and the Jewish Federations of North America are slated to participate. Noon-1 p.m., Aug. 10. MilwaukeeJewish.org/Ukraine.