Welcoming the Stranger: Is a Future in Israel a Sure Thing?
It is not my place to tell Usumain Baraka’s story. It is not my place to recount how the Janjaweed attacked his village in Darfur when he was a child. How they killed his father and his older brother, and how Usumain fled while his home burned, not knowing whether he’d be reunited with the rest of his family or if they even were alive.
I tell his story only so you will know that when Usumain arrived in Israel after four years of searching for a safe place to call home, he was desperately in need of a country that would open its arms to him. After learning about the Holocaust from a television show he watched while seeking shelter in Egypt, he was certain that the Jewish people would take him in. He was certain that Israel would grant him the refugee status that would protect him from deportation to yet another dangerous place.
I listened to Usumain tell his story in a small classroom in the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. It wasn’t the first time I’d sat in that bus station listening, crying, as asylum seekers told me how they believed Israel would keep them safe from tragedy and trauma. Israel has not yet lived up to these expectations. Like the others I’d met, Usumain told us that he is one of the lucky ones. He is not officially a refugee due to Israeli governmental policies to keep those who have fled from Darfur and Eritrea in limbo so as not to have to absorb them, but he has been granted the opportunity to learn in an Israeli university thanks to a philanthropist willing to invest in his future. Usumain is studying government to one day become a policy maker – a change maker – who ensures that those in need are cared for.
Still, Usumain’s future in Israel is uncertain. The Israeli government’s recent decision to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers caused an outcry among both asylum seekers and their allies. When the ARZA leadership mission met with Usumain and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in May, things were at a standstill. No one was quite sure what Israel ultimately would decide to do with the thousands who had sought refuge at her doorstep.
My heart shattered for Usumain that day, knowing that the bright future he and so many others like him were building in Israel could be ripped away. As Jews and liberal Zionists, we have a responsibility to prevent that from happening. The Torah tells us again and again that we must not wrong the stranger amongst us for we were once strangers in Egypt. The truth is, Usumain and the other asylum seekers in Israel are no longer strangers. Like us, they know what it is to dream of the Promised Land. Like us, they know what it is to take that first step into the Land of Milk and Honey where every speck of dust feels holy. Like us, they know what it is to wander through the deserts of hardship and of oppression and of violence and of pain to reach freedom in Eretz Yisrael.
During Usumain’s talk, I felt heavy weights on each of my shoulders. On one, the honor of holding and sharing his story so that others might learn that asylum seekers and refugees are brilliant and dynamic people whom we should honor and cherish every day. On the other, the responsibility to support organizations worldwide that are making sure that asylum seekers and refugees are treated fairly and humanely as they cross borders seeking safety and freedom. Perhaps the heaviest part of the burden is knowing that Israel, a country I love so dearly and so deeply, has so much work left to do in this arena.
When I was selected as an emerging leader to participant in the ARZA leadership mission, I knew I would be challenged and provoked by the things that I learned on the trip. Yet by the end of Usumain’s talk, I was not overwhelmed by the challenges. Instead, I felt an immense sense of gratitude that ARZA, ARZENU, WZO, and KKL gave me, a young rabbinical education student, the opportunity to hear his story. Usumain gives me hope that the day will come when lawmakers and change makers in Israel and across the world will ensure that the stranger is welcome in our midst, that our place is their place, and that those who were seen as “other” truly become a part of us.