With Refugees Hit Doubly Hard by the Pandemic, Jewish Groups Step Up Aid Efforts

Refugees in Lesbos, Greece, return from a day of learning at the IsraAID-run School of Peace. (Courtesy of IsraAID)
Refugees in Lesbos, Greece, return from a day of learning at the IsraAID-run School of Peace. (Courtesy of IsraAID)

Nearly 80 million people around the world are refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced.

Already marginalized and at elevated risk of malnutrition, disease and hunger, COVID-19 has made them even more vulnerable due to their poverty, overcrowded living conditions and limited access to healthcare.

While in this generation very few Jews are among the displaced, the Jewish historical experience of being homeless, hungry and stateless continues to drive Jewish activists and organizations to assist.

“We used to help refugees because they were Jewish; now we help refugees because we are Jewish,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, which was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. “It’s in our DNA to help people who are displaced, given our values, our Jewish texts and our long history as refugees.”

Among the displaced persons HIAS assists, more than 70 percent can no longer meet their basic needs for food, according to Nezer. That number was 15 percent before the outbreak. Mental health is also a growing concern.

“Psychologically we are destroyed,” a displaced man on the Greek island of Lesbos said, according to a document provided by HIAS, which is supplying him with aid. The organization declined to provide the man’s name or identifying details, including nationality. “Our only hope was to have our asylum hearing, but with the coronavirus everything stopped. We are doomed to stay on this island for a long time, and no one wants that.”

To meet the refugees’ COVID-related needs while protecting their own staff, Jewish and other humanitarian relief organizations have had to modify the services they provide and the ways they deliver aid. Many have temporarily suspended programs that required face-to-face interactions, prioritizing emergency assistance instead.

In the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the staff of IsraAID, an Israeli group that provides humanitarian assistance in 14 countries, has redirected much of its time and resources toward establishing hand-washing stations and fighting misinformation about how the virus spreads.

“Residents were receiving a lot of mixed messages. We worked on educating about the virus, just as we did during the Ebola outbreak in 2014,” CEO Yotam Polizer said.

Health education is also vital in South Sudan, which has just four ventilators for 11 million people.

The best strategy, particularly in poor countries with no functioning health system, is to prevent infection, Polizer said. Compounding matters, the foreign health professionals who ordinarily come on medical missions and bring with them supplies and expertise are staying home to deal with their own countries’ COVID-19 crises. IsraAID was fortunate in that it already had teams on the ground — comprised of Israelis and locals, including refugees — before the pandemic’s outbreak.

The American Jewish World Service, which provides financial support, capacity building and support to social justice organizations worldwide, has reallocated its resources in varying ways. In a crowded Bangladeshi camp that houses 1 million refugees, AJWS has shifted resources away from specific programs and toward supporting educational efforts to prevent the virus’ spread and helping the camp’s refugees obtain bare necessities.

Children line up for clean drinking water provided by an Israeli aid group at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. (Courtesy of IsraAID)

In India, AJWS funded a program before the outbreak called Women on Wheels, which provides employment opportunities to women by training them to be taxi drivers and teaching them negotiation skills and financial independence. Now that it’s unsafe for women to attend the course in person, AJWS is giving them financial assistance so they can feed their families and purchase items like masks and hand sanitizer.

“We are prioritizing flexibility,” said Robert Bank, AJWS’s president and CEO.

Although refugees are in desperate need of assistance, the pandemic also has inspired many to reach out and offer assistance to others, according to aid officials. Refugees in Greece and Germany have created and donated protective masks to people who need them most.

In one initiative in Germany organized by IsraAID, Muslim refugees who work for the group created masks for Holocaust survivors.

“Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, who could have imagined that refugees from Muslim countries who have never met a Jewish person in their lives, but who are working for an Israeli organization, would be distributing masks to Holocaust survivors?” Polizer said. “I call this post-traumatic growth. How a double tragedy – the refugee crisis and the trauma of corona – can sometimes turn into an opportunity to build bridges between people.”

Mara, a Syrian refugee who created masks for survivors, reflected on the experience.

“As a foreigner helping here in Germany, it makes me happy to see others happy when we help them,” Mara said. “To help the elderly and to protect them from a terrible illness through our masks initiative has touched me especially. As a Syrian refugee from Palestinian origin, I have experienced a lot that connects me with the Jewish people. We share a similar history, so it was especially interesting to meet Holocaust survivors and to exchange experiences.”

A Muslim refugee in Germany is part of a team organized by IsraAID that produced masks for Holocaust survivors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of IsraAID)

Meanwhile, to meet refugees’ increased needs, more than 100 Jewish and Israeli organizations recently participated in a 10-day campaign to raise funds and express solidarity. Fundraising for refugees is particularly challenging right now because many philanthropists are directing funds to people and institutions in their own communities, while smaller donors may be cutting back on international giving to focus on their own needs.

The #70million campaign was organized by OLAM, an umbrella group for Jewish and Israeli organizations that work in developing countries, and coordinated in partnership with AJWS, HIAS, IsraAID, and several other groups.

“The campaign was a way for us to pay it forward, share our experience and our core Jewish values,” said Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of OLAM. “The Torah commands us to love the stranger – 36 times. That reminds us that our own experience of suffering should be transformed as empathy for other.”

The rising number of displaced people around the world should be an urgent call to action, said Nezer of HIAS.

“We participated because the Jewish response to the world’s refugee crisis is powerful and important and a strong expression of tikkun olam,” she said.

Bank noted that refugees are threatened not just by the global pandemic, but by an increasingly xenophobic global environment. AJWS will use the funds raised in the #70million campaign not just to support refugees today, he said, but also to “prevent others from being displaced in the future by fighting for democratic and inclusive societies worldwide, which do not expel their own citizens or mistreat others.”

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