Human rights activists say refugee crisis is being framed by fear

Shelly Pitterman, regional representative to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees speaks at a conference on the refugee crisis, on May 18.  Photo by Daniel Schere
Shelly Pitterman, regional representative to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees speaks at a conference on the refugee crisis, on May 18. Photo by Daniel Schere

Members of the Jewish and human rights communities say the conversation surrounding how to treat the world’s 60 million refugees, particularly those in the Middle East, is missing compassion.

Events such as the massive migration of Syrian refugees to Europe, the Paris terror attacks and shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., have heightened concerns over national security in the United States and placed the issues of immigration at the forefront of the 2016 presidential election.

This combination has led to public opinion becoming “polarized by fear,” said Shelly Pitterman, the regional representative to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“When we talk about millions of refugees and a global crisis, these are big ideas, but the first thing to remember is that you’re talking about parents and their children,” he said during a conference on the refugee crisis on May 18 that was held by the Jewish Labor Committee and the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington.

Pitterman criticized both apparent Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the media for framing the question of refugee resettlement as a security issue rather than a humanitarian crisis. He said the businessman is “exploiting fear,” cited CNN’s coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe as the primary cause of that fear.

“What you had was this impression on its face that this mass of people are just moving on their own, an uncontrolled mass, and that’s the caseload that will come to the U.S.,” he said. “It was against that backdrop that it came to be that visual thunder that people were saying, ‘No, of course not. We don’t want that.’ That was juxtaposed against the discussion about refugee resettlement in the United States.”

The discussion also included Mark Hetfield, president of the Silver Spring-based refugee resettlement agency HIAS, which was founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Hetfield said the United States can do better than accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees — a goal that President Barack Obama set last year.

Hetfield pointed out that Canada accepted 26,000 Syrian refugees in the last four months, but acknowledged that it has far more room to accommodate a population increase than the United States. In the Jewish community, more than 1,000 rabbis nationwide signed a letter in December urging Congress to exercise “moral leadership” by accepting more refugees.

Among the signers was Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, who gave a sermon on the topic during last Yom Kippur. Feshbach said he was moved to sign the letter when he heard Hetfield say last year, “We used to help refugees because they were Jews. Now we help them because we are Jews.”

In an interview, Feshbach said he has been appalled by recent anti-Muslim rhetoric. Some Americans have “amnesia” when it comes to immigration, he added. He attributed this in part to the fact that immigration has been placed under the authority of the Department of  Homeland Security, rather than another department.

“Where we put the agency [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] that handles this is a reflection on your values,” he said. “Security concerns are real, but I’m confident that they can be dealt with in a way that is more effective and more efficient that is currently happening,” he said.

Temple Shalom is one of about 10 congregations in Washington to sponsor a Syrian family as part of HIAS’s Welcome Campaign, said Karen Green, who chairs the temple’s refugee response team. Temple Shalom has joined with Lutheran Social Services, the Ethiopian Development Council and the International Rescue Committee in preparing to host the family.

The team will undergo training next month teach its members how to respond to the needs of the family. This will involve fully outfitting an apartment with furniture and living necessities, teaching them conversational English, and acclimating them to daily tasks like going to the bank or using public transportation.

“We learned in our informational training, when a congregation sponsors someone we get enthusiastic and they give clothing and money and food, and everybody wants to meet them,” she said. “Meanwhile the refugee family is traumatized. They’ve been persecuted from their home.”

Green said there is an anti-refugee sentiment in the country, but for Jews welcoming the stranger is an obligation.

Said Green, “We are particularly eager to help a Muslim family, because when we look back to our history as Jews, what would we have done without the righteous among nations?”

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