First, thank you to the WRJ for recognizing HIAS with this award. As a board member, it warms my heart to have the incredibly dedicated and complicated work of our staff be noticed and lifted up, especially in these very difficult times.
Second, it is a privilege to share with you my own HIAS story. It’s a privilege because I get to speak both as a former HIAS client and as a current member of the HIAS Board of Directors. I guess you could say I’ve lived the entire gamut of the HIAS experience: from being the stateless little girl awaiting an uncertain fate in between countries to sitting in the boardroom where decisions about allocating resources to stateless little girls are made. At times, it makes my head spin to think about having traveled that path. And I could not be more grateful.
It is appropriate that you have already heard from Mark Hetfield this evening. Though neither of us knew it at the time, Mark’s path and mine crossed at the very beginning of my refugee story – in 1989.
My family left the former Soviet Union on July 16 of that year. It is a familiar story to many of you: Jews from Eastern Europe seeking freedom, embarking on an unpredictable journey with the hopes of making it to America. When we left Russia, we had to give up our Soviet citizenship and when we arrived at our first stop – Vienna, Austria – we were, truly, stateless, and belonged nowhere.
As a ten-year-old kid, I, of course, knew none of this. I had also managed to get very sick with strep throat the morning of our departure (I am sure my parents, who I believe are watching this now, really appreciated that). So all I did know, on that very first day, was that some nice people met us at the airport and got us housing in relatively fast order, given the large group of people with whom we had arrived and the terrible weather. These were the HIAS folks.
These same folks helped us gather our bearings on this OTHER side of the Iron Curtain, where everything was bewildering, from the language to the cleanliness of the city streets to the quantities of food in the grocery stores. As we adjusted to our new reality, our future was still uncertain. We would have to request refuge in America at the U.S. Consulate in Rome, Italy, our next stop.
Travel to Rome was a chaos of trains, people and suitcases being loaded and unloaded through doors and windows, crowds, confusion, and rumors of all kinds about how to get “into” America.
As an attorney who has worked with immigrants and asylees, today I understand the American legal system and its complicated standards for refugee claims. In the summer of 1989, we didn’t know any of that.
That is where HIAS came in yet again. In addition to providing us with food and housing, HIAS worked with each family on their asylum applications. It was up to people like Mark, who was in Rome as a recently recruited HIAS officer, and Dorit Perry, another of my board colleagues, to help us present our stories of persecution and repression to the US immigration officials.
I have often joked with Mark that there is no way to know if we ever actually saw each other in Rome – but I know that he was on our team then, and, as a result, I am on his team now.
My family was extraordinarily fortunate. After a brief two-month stay in Italy we were allowed to come to the US, and begin our own American story. HIAS helped us with the resettlement process as well. But after that first year, as a kid and a young adult, I didn’t think about HIAS again for many years.
Nineteen years later, I reconnected with HIAS. I wanted to volunteer and serve my community, and HIAS was the first place I thought of to turn to. At the time, I did not have the thorough understanding of the work HIAS does that I have now – I just remembered that they had helped us, and I wanted to pay that forward.
And that, actually, seems like the whole story in a nutshell. It is the story of Jewish immigrants who persevered in their new homeland, but never forgot receiving a helping hand when they needed it most. It’s the story of giving back and paying forward. Moreover, it is the story of the Jewish people as a whole, directed by God to “welcome the stranger,” for they themselves were strangers in a strange land. These are the driving values that we celebrate tonight, that unite HIAS, WRJ, and hopefully all of our listeners – the Jewish values of welcoming the stranger, of affording all people dignity and respect, and of empowering the vulnerable among us. They are not just Biblical text or modern buzz words – they are truths that HIAS has brought to life for almost 140 years and that WRJ has promoted for over a 100.
These are the values that guide us to continue to do this work irrespective of what our clients may look like now or what faith they may follow. This, too, is a most Jewish lesson of which I was reminded shortly before I decided to join the HIAS board. I learned this lesson from another Jewish refugee whose story should be more familiar to you than mine. Her name was Anne Frank. And at HIAS, we have her family’s file. There, in that file, in black and white, are letters from family friends and relatives here in the US trying to secure permission for the Frank family to come to America as the Nazi world was closing in on them. As we know, those efforts were not successful. The HIAS file exists – as a reminder to us of a family that does not.
We know that for the Franks, the efforts of other Jews alone were not enough. The efforts of other Jews alone were not enough for millions of European Jews. But there are hundreds of stories of those who survived because they were helped by others, in places as far-flung as Japan, China, and Latin America.
We have learned this lesson. Today, HIAS’s self-stated mission is to rescue all people who are in danger for being who they are. We do this because we know that we have needed the help of strangers in strange lands before and that we may need it again. We do this because it is the right thing to do.
Jane Ginnis is a member of the HIAS Board of Directors and spoke on the 2020 Jane Evans Award webinar.