As the civil war in Yemen rages, three exchange students from that Persian Gulf country have found asylum in the homes of three families of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington.
The students had been studying at Northern Virginia Community College but learned that the State Department would not extend their student visas.
Going back to Yemen “was not an option,” said Eric Brown, who has been hosting one of the students since May. He said the students, who are 18 and 19 years old, decided the best option in would be to apply for asylum in the United States, with the hope they would be able to work and eventually go back to school.
They were introduced to the Jewish families by a reporter for the Washington Post who had written about them.
The students would not agree to be interviewed or have their faces photographed for this story out of fear that revealing their identity might jeopardize their legal status.
But the Jewish families say the experience is unique because their houseguests have no other place to go.
Asked if her family is performing a charitable deed, Kleiner said yes, but downplayed it.
“I don’t consider it all that charitable, particularly because we have the room, we have the food and it’s sometimes small things that are not such a big deal to one person, but can be a huge deal to the recipient” said Shari Kleiner, who is hosting a student. “I think this is one of those things.”
Kleiner said she was initially apprehensive when a friend asked her if she would welcome a stranger from another country and another religion into her home. But after consideration, she agreed.
“My world is a very Jewish world. I live a block and a half from our shul. Our kids go to Jewish camp and Jewish schools, and so there’s a fear of the outside and the outsider, but there’s also a fascination,” she said.
Kleiner’s guest stays in a bedroom in the lower level of the family’s house. He prays five times a day on a small rug, she said. The student is not allowed to work, so he and 11-year-old Josh Kleiner have played a lot of sports together this summer.
Another host, who asked not to be identified because she does not want to be recognized for what she is doing, said she agreed to take in one of the students after thinking about her grandmother, who immigrated to the United States after surviving the Holocaust.
“Listening to my grandmother talk about learning a new language, being stuck in awkward situations, really resonated for me,” she said. “This is my way of paying it forward. If my kids were in the same boat, I would want someone to do the same.”
Brown said hosting a Muslim student has given him an opportunity to expose the teenager to aspects of both Jewish and American culture. He and his wife, Aliza Levine, took their guest to Takoma Park’s Independence Day celebration last month. During Ramadan, he said, their family celebrated Shabbat and the Muslim breaking of the fast, Iftar, during Ramadan, together.
“He’s never lived with an observant kosher family,” Brown said.
“He jokes that he keeps a kosher home now.”
Kleiner said she and her guest frequently ask questions about each other’s religions.
“Yesterday he asked me why we drink wine or grape juice at every meal on Shabbat,” she said.
One adjustment that Kleiner and other Jewish families have had to make is not to serve wine-based dressings because of Islam’s ban on alcohol consumption.
“There are some small differences,” she said. “I used to make balsamic vinaigrette, but now I don’t do that.”
Ohev Sholom’s maharat, or spiritual leader, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, also hosts an asylum seeker, although not one of the students from Yemen.
She recalled the moment in September 2016 when she was standing in her kitchen and received an email asking her if she was willing to open her home to a stranger.
“In an instant I turned to my husband and said ‘we have a room in our basement, do you want me to look into this?’” she told an audience recently at Congregation Beth Joshua in Rockville.
She said she did not want to identify the asylum seeker’s home country due to concern over her guest’s legal status.
Friedman said her guest is a doctor and had saved the life of the mother of a soldier in his native country’s military. The soldier then drove the doctor to the country’s border and said, “run.” He came to the United States with only a bag, a laptop and clothing. Friedman said her guest still remembers the trauma of fleeing his home and urged attendees to have compassion for strangers in need.
“He has worked tirelessly to become a doctor here,” Friedman said. “He’s actually home right now watching my son so that I could be here right now and my husband could be at work.”