Adul Sam-on, Stateless Hero

Image: Adul Sam-on in the cave, photo adapted from the Hindi First Post.

 

I woke this morning to the news that the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand have been rescued alive, and are now in the hospital. That was wonderful news, and people all over the world are relieved.

Several outlets reported that a key element in the rescue was the contribution of Adul Sam-on, a member of the team. Adul was described by the New York Times as “the stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch.” He was the only English speaker in the group, and he handled the communication with the British divers who originally found the boys on July 2:

Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, Adul politely communicated to the British divers his squad’s greatest needs: food and clarity on just how long they had stayed alive. -NYT, 7/10/18

Adul Sam-on’s impressive language skills were hard earned. He had been born in Myanmar, but he did not have Burmese citizenship. His ethnic group, the Wa, have a troubled history relative to the Myanmar government. They live in the “Golden Triangle” area of Southeast Asia, and are associated with drug production and trafficking. His parents were able to smuggle him to a church in Thailand where he has lived since he was small, attending the Ban Wiangphan School in Chiang Rai province. They clearly wanted something other than drugs and gangs for their son.

Now let’s look at Adul Sam-on through a different lens, the lens he would face at the US border. He has the following pro’s and con’s:

Pro: Young, healthy, intelligent, multi-lingual, good at sports. Now has shown his translation skills in a highly stressful setting, performing with aplomb. He is the pride of his school, beloved of his teachers.

Con: Stateless person. No passport. Refugee. His tribe is known to be involved in the drug trade. Sounds like there was trouble in his old neighborhood, too.

I think it’s safe to say that were he to turn up at the US border, he’d wind up in the custody of ICE, labeled a “lawbreaker,” with extra worries about possible drug connections. Even though he has a lot to offer any nation who takes him, we wouldn’t want him. We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want refugees.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with us, that we are fearful of the Adul Sam-on’s of the world? Immigrants are responsible for less crime than native-born US citizens. Immigrants can add a lot to a society, bringing things like language skills and their drive to succeed.

How many of the young adults in ICE custody or under threat of deportation are potential leaders, potential teachers, potential communicators? How many of them could shine under pressure like that young man? We’ll never know.

The Torah commands not once, not twice, but 36 TIMES that we are to “love the stranger.” It reminds us that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt. And for the last 2000 years we have more often been strangers than we have been truly at home, because we were stateless and unwanted.

The current immigration policy of the US Government is racist, bigoted, cowardly, and selfish. We don’t deserve a Adul Sam-on; I’m glad he has a bright future somewhere else.

 

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Guest Post – The Sleeping Children

Image: A Syrian refugee mother and her newborn infant at a clinic near Ramtha, Jordan. Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development/Wikimedia some rights reserved. 

This post was written by Emmett Koehler. Emmett is a member of the Board of Trustees of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, a leader in their young adults group, and I am proud to say that he’s a graduate of my Intro to the Jewish Experience class. He wrote this as a meditation on the prayer Emet v’Emunah (Truth and Faith) from the evening service, for the Community Shabbat Service.


The sleeping children are awakened by their mothers’ trembling hands.

The same weathered hands that clutched these children the night before, praying the angel of death would pass over them.

The mothers’ hands are busy making bread that won’t be baked, packing only what can be carried, and bolting the doors and windows of homes they will never see again.

Some hands are confident, moving strong and sure with the certainty of freedom; while others are hesitant, slick with fear.

These mothers’ hands, old and young, weak and strong, once held sons and brothers and husbands who left, but never returned.

In vain, their hands shield children from the sights of sorrow, women holding lifeless sons who were not passed over by the angel of death.

The mothers point fingers east, into the desert, but cannot fathom the pain and sorrow and toil that await their tired and broken hands.

But these selfless hands will raise the children who one day pick up stones and plows and bows to build a nation these mothers will never see

GOD stretched out a hand over Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, sending plagues and performing miracles. And in this time, a thousand hands of a thousand mothers carried their children out of Egypt, to freedom.

– Emmett Koehler

A 21st Century Tisha B’Av

Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.

Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3

In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.

“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.

So let’s try that:

All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.

What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.

In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”

What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34

In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.

The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.

You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.

Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.

The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.

We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.

This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.

It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.

 

*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.

 

We Have Seen This Before

And if a stranger live with you in your land, you will not do him wrong. – Leviticus 19:33

Possibly the most frequently repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible is “welcome the stranger.” One of my colleagues, Rabbi Michael Latz, finds it in some form in 36 different places. It is often bolstered with the logic, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (e.g. Leviticus 19:34) which brings to mind Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows.” (Shabbat 31a)

Today the news is full of suspicion for the Syrian refugees fleeing the disaster of Daesh (aka ISIS, but follow that link to find out why I am not going to call them “Islamic State” anymore.) One of the men who murdered hostages in the Bataclan Theater in Paris carried a Syrian passport and now the cry has gone up: “Don’t take them in, they may be terrorists!”

In places connected to Syria by land masses or the Mediterranean, I can understand the fear. But here in the United States, the border for Syrian travelers is well-defined: it’s a secure area in airports and seaports, and no one gets through unless U.S. Customs and Border Security says they get through. Refugees are subjected to special screening by various offices of several different departments of the government, any of which can turn them down. The process takes 18-24 months; it’s no quickie. If you want to learn more about it, you can do so here.

There was a time in the past when people were desperately trying to flee an evil regime, and we Americans took it upon ourselves to see them all as undesirables: wrong religion, possibly spies, maybe saboteurs! Our ports were firmly closed to them. We actually turned away whole shiploads of them: refugees not wanted.

It emerged, after the war, that the Nazis had manipulated the whole thing: they sent agents to Cuba to aggravate antisemitic feeling there and in the U.S., and spread rumors that some of the refugees were “a criminal element.” Eventually the ship returned to Germany, and the refugees went to the camps, most of them, to their deaths.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Check thoroughly everyone who applies for refugee status, by all means, but do not allow Daesh or any other evil regime to manipulate U.S. policy.

And remember, my fellow Jews: we were once strangers fleeing the land of Egypt.

Image: “Women and children Syrian refugees at the Budapest Keleti railway station” taken by Mystslav Chernov. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Aid to Refugees: How We Can Help

Looking for meaningful ways to alleviate the suffering you see on the news? It is a longtime Jewish custom to give tzedakah [money for the relief of sufferers and to promote justice] before every holiday. As you make your other High Holy Day plans, don’t forget to give tzedakah!

This summer we have been inundated with terrible photographs and stories about the massive movement of refugees out of Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, fleeing the violence of war. Here are three organizations that bring considerable expertise to their work with refugees:

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in the United States in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today they aid refugees of all backgrounds all over the world with legal assistance, psychosocial care, and job assistance, with special sensitivity to the vulnerability of women, children, and LGBT persons. If you are looking for a way to help those fleeing the violence in Syria, this is one organization that has been doing this work for quite a while now. They are experienced, in place, and have an excellent track record of using donated funds wisely.

In the UK, World Jewish Relief has been working on relief for Syrian refugees since 2013. World Jewish Relief has made an appeal for funding for their operation providing food, shelter, medicine and hygiene kits to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria or Greece. This aid is not limited to Jews, but is available to all refugees.

ISRAid is an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Israel that responds to emergencies around the globe. They have two current projects that touch on the situation of refugees: first is a relief team assisting the refugees pouring into Europe, the second is a project assisting displaced people fleeing ISIL/ISIS in Iraq. According to the Jerusalem Post:

IsraAID has been actively responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and their host countries for over two years now, focusing on Jordan, Iraq, and Bulgaria. Ranging from emergency aid distributions to pinpointed trauma support and prevention training for host country government and non-government professionals, the organization is drawing on its expertise and experience in the management of crises triggered by refugees, to help others.

(Update): I have just learned of another Israeli initiative. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, is launching the following center to aid children of African refugees in Israel (quotation from their materials):

The Hartman Institute has decided to establish a Day Care and Learning Center in Tel Aviv for children of African refugees aged 3-6. The Center will be launched in collaboration with the Elifelet organization, our hosts last summer, which cares for more than 600 children and infants. Three- to six-year-olds are the age group that Elifelet professionals have identified as being at the greatest risk. These children are released from their day care environments at 1:30 every afternoon and have nowhere to go and no one to watch over or care for them, until their parents return home from work in the evening.

Elifelet personnel will oversee the professional staff and educational programming at the Hartman-sponsored Center. The Hartman Institute community will provide the financial resources and the backbone of the Center’s volunteer infrastructure, which will include our high school and gap-year students, administrative staff, teaching and research faculty, and the parents of our students. The center will function from 1:30–6:30 pm daily, and will provide children with a safe, caring, and nurturing environment that will offer nutritious meals, counseling, basic learning skills classes, and a game center.

Finally, if you are thinking, “the little bit I could give will not make a difference,” please reconsider. For one thing, your small donation combines with other donations to make a big difference. Maimonides taught that we all have a responsibility to give tzedakah, even if we can only give a minuscule amount. If we each give according to our means, we can relieve a great deal of suffering.

Finally, you can also help by passing this information to others on your social networks. The internet is rife with hand-wringing and pontification; this is an opportunity to actually help. Whether you pass along a link to this article, or publicize the work of a particular organization, you will contribute to the quality of online discussion by offering people a way to do something.

The image with this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner is Haeferl.