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World Refugee Day: Reflecting, Acting, and Honoring Our Jewish Legacy as Refugees

World Refugee Day: Reflecting, Acting, and Honoring Our Jewish Legacy as Refugees

When we and other members of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine hear about the “refugee crisis,” we don’t think about geopolitics. Instead, we think about Hamideh and her four children.

Born in Afghanistan, Hamideh fled to Iran as war engulfed her home, then made her way to a refugee camp in Turkey, and finally landed in Augusta last November. She did not speak English or know a soul in town, and she faced a long Maine winter cooped up in a small apartment. 

Hamideh and several other refugee families who arrived in Augusta in late 2016 inspired us to join with other members of our community to form the Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP – pronounced “camp”), an all-volunteer organization that welcomes immigrants and refugees and helps them thrive in Central Maine. Our Temple helped launch CANMP, and many of our members are active in the effort. 

With CANMP’s help, Hamideh is becoming part of our community. Armed with Google Translate, we have spent countless hours in the car with Hamideh, talking as we drive to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, Head Start, school celebrations, local festivals, ESL classes, and supermarkets. We have advocated for female doctors, interpreters, and better housing, and we are working to see Hamideh reunited with her husband, who is still in Turkey. She has invited us into her apartment for tea and long evening discussions. Just as we have shared our traditions of Passover and Shabbat, she has included us in Ramadan and Nowruz (Persian New Year). Having left behind her extended family, Hamideh considers the CANMP volunteers her new moms and siblings. 

Our work with Hamideh is part of CANMP’s broader effort to build stronger bonds between the refugee community and those born here. The presence of 50 refugee families, many of whom are from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, has made our community immeasurably stronger. We now have three new Iraqi markets, which are our source for amazing pita, spices and halvah. Through CANMP-sponsored activities, high school students have taught American kids Dari and Arabic, immigrant mothers have hosted a cooking demonstration to teach people how to make dolmas (the secret is to use Swiss chard as the wrap), and immigrants helped teach a community class on Islam held at Temple Beth El. Every day, we are learning more about each other.

Through CANMP, new and old Mainers have begun advocating for immigrant rights. When the President announced the unjust executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement in January, we held a press conference with local officials, state legislators, and immigrants to present a letter of protest signed by more than 500 residents. We have lobbied at the state house, written op-eds, and hosted community meetings to educate the broader community about what immigrants bring to our area.

On this World Refugee Day, the global crisis feels personal. Each of us has a responsibility to understand that this crisis impacts individuals with unique lives and stories. The Mishna and hagaddah instruct us, “In every generation, a person is obligated to see him as though he came forth from Egypt.” We are only a few generations removed from our Jewish history of being refugees, and getting to know Hamideh has made our historical legacy resonant again. In hearing about her journey, we are reminded of our obligation to act. Seeing pictures and reading about massive displacement statistics can make this crisis feel overwhelming, but on a local level we know that we are making a difference for Hamideh, her children, and other new Mainers. 

For more information on how you can welcome refugees in your community, check out the RAC’s issue page

Erica Asch is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta and the Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. She works closely with the Capital Area New Mainers Project (https://www.newmainersproject.org). 

Ellen Freed is an LCSW working with families in Central Maine. She is a member of Temple Beth El and a part of a Family Mentor Team for CANMP.