In light of the recently updated ban ordered by President Trump, refugees and immigrants remain at the top of the news cycle. The stories of people coming into our country today, many of whom are fleeing harsh conditions at home, are familiar to Jewish Americans. It was not long ago, after all, that many of our collective Jewish grandparents or parents (or we ourselves) set off to America seeking a better or safer life.
In the spirit of supporting today’s refugees and immigrants, Repair the World’s Vice President for Programs, Mordy Walfish shared his grandparents’ remarkable refugee story, as well as the lessons we can take from remembering the words from Exodus 23: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Can you share your family’s refugee/immigrant story?
I’m the grandkid of four refugees. My dad’s parents fled Eastern Europe between the two World Wars – one settled in Toronto and the other in Detroit. My mother’s parents are Holocaust survivors. I’ve always connected most to my grandmother’s refugee story. She grew up in Poland and spent her teenage years in ghettos and camps, finally being liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945 at the age of 18.
Though Poland was her home, she, her sister, and her mom (the only survivors in their large extended family) had no desire to return. They first smuggled their way into Belgium, where they lived for a couple of years, until making her way to Paris, which was her dream. There she lived a free and beautiful life – soaking up the culture, studying to be a Yiddish teacher and also meeting my grandfather. They were both really involved with the Jewish secular socialist movement called the Bund and met at a political lecture one evening. My grandma had radiant red hair that caught my grandpa’s eyes. He was sitting behind her and couldn’t help but pull her hair in the middle of the lecture. She turned around to yell at my grandpa, who stared back sheepishly. He somehow weaseled a date out of the situation and the rest is history.
Paris was always a dream for my grandmother and the freedom and depth of life she lived there in so many ways represented the counter to the enslavement she experienced during the Holocaust. My grandparents wanted to settle there, but France was not granting citizenship to Jewish refugees. They were disappointed that they couldn’t rebuild their lives in France, but grateful that they could settle permanently in Canada.
I grew up knowing that Canada was their second choice, the blander, less exciting version than France. But at the same time, Canada was a good place – the place that gave people an opportunity to succeed, even if they arrived on its shores with nothing. There they could get college degrees, raise a family, purchase property, and live a life that they constructed, full of richness and meaning, in deep community with their fellow Yiddishist Holocaust survivors, and also as part of the beautiful multicultural mosaic of Canada, as they always referred to it.
What impact did their story have on you growing up?
From an early age I internalized that you can’t take home, safety, and belonging for granted. And that there is so much luck of the draw between those who have access to a secure home and those who do not. I learned that home isn’t permanent and can be really precarious; and that community sustains you, especially at times when you are denied a physical place to call home.
I grew up with a sense that borders of a country mean something – often something not good – that separates people and creates division. But that borders can also mean creating a space to live out certain values. I also took in how hard my grandparents worked and how much they sacrificed so that I could take for granted things like home, citizenship, and belonging. And how I was never allowed to forget that I must do everything in my power to share those resources with others.
Why are immigrant and refugee issues important to you personally today?
Refugee issues hit so close to home, in a deep and visceral way. I’d like to think that I would care about refugee issues simply as a human, but of course my own family’s history make this one feel so alive for me.
I think a lot about the randomness of displacement; how a simple piece of paper can mean the difference between life and death; how out of whack I feel when I simply travel – and how much of a privilege that is. I think about the randomness of a claim to citizenship and how protective people are of the things that they’re scared of losing. I wonder why some people are able to be at home their whole lives, while others are forced to wander. And I wonder why we let this happen.
Why are they important to Repair the World’s work?
Welcoming refugees to me feels so central to Repair’s mission in so many ways. Deep down when I think about our mission, it’s about fostering a sense of connectedness between all humans – that our fates are bound up with one another. There are times in our individual lives – and in the life of the Jewish community – when we are vulnerable and need others to welcome us, to share their resources with us, to build us up and let us live our fullest lives. And there are times when we are privileged to have access to resources and we have a deep obligation to share these resources – of time, of home, of space, of money – with others. I don’t really see this as a choice. Community is what sustains us, and sharing what we have is one of the only ways to undercut the randomness of life.
(Photos courtesy of Mordy Walfish. Top: Mordy’s grandmother, mother, and uncle. Middle: Mordy’s grandparents.)