Moral Obligation

American Jewish Community Steps Up To Help Syrian Refugees

Emily Hauser reports on the ever-worsening situation of Syrian refugees, and efforts by the Jewish community to do its part to help.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The crisis of the Syrian civil war long ago reached beyond those engaged in battle to become one of the most pressing issues confronting anyone in the region and, ultimately, the global community. With 2.2 million refugees now beyond Syria’s borders, and 6.5 million internally displaced persons within them, well more than a third of Syria’s population has fled the violence that consumes their country. The collapse of the nation’s health care system has led to an outbreak of polio, and no matter where the the flood of humanity turns, they arrive hungry, largely bereft of belongings, and often badly wounded.

The struggles faced by each family, each individual, are of course unique, and often dependent on the direction in which they ran: on Tuesday, reports emerged that Greek border authorities have maltreated refugees and illegally forced many to sail for Turkey; in northern Iraq, 200,000 Syrians are facing what experts predict will be an unusually harsh winter; last spring The Atlantic reported that Syrian girls in Lebanon are becoming child brides, in the hopes of finding security in marriage.

Far and away the greatest number of refugees have arrived in Jordan. As of mid-October, the Hashemite Kingdom had reportedly absorbed some 550,000 Syrians; that number is expected to rise as high as a million by year’s end. The Zaatari Refugee Camp alone is home to some 120,000―roughly the same population as Hartford, Connecticut or Santa Clara, California. Bear in mind that Jordan’s own population numbers only 6.3 million.

Traditionally, the American Jewish community has stepped up quickly wherever people face devastation, whether in Darfur, Haiti, or the Philippines, but the suffering of a country and a people officially at war with the Jewish State presents a particular challenge. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the region, but it might be tempting to leave the Arab world to care for its own.

Philanthropist Georgette Bennett, founder and President of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, recognizes the challenge, but told "Open Zion": “That actually ends up being the ultimate test of our resolve to abide by our obligation as Jews to respond to human suffering, to welcome the stranger.”

“We are called on as Jews to respond to a situation like this.”

Bennett says that it was a report by the International Rescue Committee (of which she is a longtime board member) that brought the need home: “It was clear to me that what we’re looking at here is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and a crisis that is disproportionately affecting women & children.”

A supporter of the Joint Distribution Committee, Bennett approached the JDC about coordinating aid for Syrian refugees from among the members of its Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief; 16 organizations now comprise the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, including such diverse groups as the Anti-Defamation League, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, and Mazon. Bennett has herself been a major financial contributor and a prominent advocate for the coalition's work.

“Jordan is really bearing the brunt of this problem,” Bennett says, “and it doesn’t have much in the way of natural resources to begin with…. [It’s] on the verge of being destabilized and if Jordan collapses that’s terrible for the refugees, terrible for the region—and terrible for the United States, by the way. Jordan has been a reliable ally [and] has been very important diplomatically, serving as neutral ground in dealing with a number of issues.”

This month the coalition disbursed about $127,000 to the Israel Trauma Coalition, World Jewish Relief, and the IRC; all told, some $330,000 has been allocated since the summer.

It’s worth noting, however, that Syrian refugees are not the first Arab diaspora to have challenged the American Jewish tradition of philanthropy.

Bennett immediately acknowledges that with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the complications are even greater, “but completely separate from [the Syrian issue], I’m also doing work on the West Bank.”

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For the past two years, Bennett has supported an educational program based in the Tanenbaum Center’s “Seven Principles for Inclusive Education.”

“It’s being piloted in 20 schools in Ramallah, we hope to roll it out to Nablus and Hebron―it depends on funding. It’s a healing classroom program designed to teach children who are in trauma situations, designed to teach them about living with differences, within the framework of an educational curriculum…. It’s part of community building.”

Bennett also hopes to organize support for “an urgently needed” teaching hospital on the West Bank. “In order to get the training they need, [Palestinian doctors] have to leave the country. When they leave the country, they don’t come back.”

And what of Palestinians who once fled to Syria and are now fleeing again? Theirs is a special agony, often even worse than that suffered by Syrian nationals, their vulnerability heightened by decades of complicating factors.

Jordan is the crossroads of all of these stories, home as it already was to 1.8 million Palestinian refugees; many Palestinians now arriving from Syria find themselves turned away, because they don’t have Syrian citizenship.

And so the spirals of violence and pain, conflict and flight continue to turn within themselves and each other, deepening and spreading the misery. “While this is Jordan’s crisis,” Bennett says, “this is not Jordan’s problem. It’s an international problem.”