We Were Strangers


We hear about refugees so much we may be inured to their tragedy and pain. Meanwhile they’re hiding in your city, starving in Uganda, being murdered in Myanmar, prostrate with dehydration in Sudan.

I can personally recommend the Jewish way of repeating a few chosen words first thing every morning. After a period of focus something comes along and pushes me to change words. Currently I am using this: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:33)

From Abraham to today as Jews we have almost constantly been running from oppression, death, starvation somewhere in the world. The Holiness Code, international law and the stories we have heard with our own ears require us to respond to today’s refugees. When mothers and their children  run from murderers and rapists without time to pack a bag is no time to be singing a song about bootstraps.

Refugees are people who choose between flight and death. They are not just looking for better opportunities when they beg for admittance to a reasonably calm country. Their children will be taken, they will be tortured or murdered if they return and usually their home and crops have turned to ash.

I look back on my own childhood and while we were poorer than any church mice, I never worried about armed men storming down the hill into our yard and it never occurred to me there could be tanks on our road. Few of us can imagine the agony the world’s 20 million refugees have suffered through. While 91% of the world’s children attend primary school, about 50% of refugee children do so; 10-15% attend secondary school. What kind of world are we building?

Pesach is a Holy Day that pushes us toward responsibility:

  • To volunteer with the Winnebago County Literacy Council, call your local library.
  • Volunteer at and contribute to local food pantries
  • Contribute to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1800 Massachusetts Av NW #500, Washington DC  20036 (UNHCR)
  • Contribute to Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 220 E 42 St, New York NY  10017 (The Joint)
  • Contribute to URJ Religious Action Center, 2027 Massachusetts Av NW 20036
  • Write to members of Congress and demand that we provide the asylum required by our 1980 Refugee Act.

We of all people must provide a haven to the persecuted, to religious minorities, to the other. The strength of America comes from open doors, extended hands, welcoming words, smiling faces and generous pockets.

- Barbara Kuhn