Meron Semedar

Meron Semedar

Meet Meron Semedar. He was born in Eritrea, a country whose people endure human rights violations, forced military conscription, brutal punishment for religious expression, torture and executions for political opposition, and life in prison for those who try to leave.

But Meron had the courage to escape. He left behind family and friends, his life, his school, and all that was familiar to him to risk his life on the arduous journey that all refugees experience.

There were many moments when he wanted to give up, but had the will and the resilience to keep going, from Eritrea to Sudan to South Africa and finally here to the United States.

In this country, he wore the label of “refugee,” and was shunned, sometimes viewed as less than human. But Meron persevered.

Eventually, he earned his master’s degree in international studies at the University of San Francisco and was selected as the graduation speaker, the first refugee to be given that honor. Meron shared on that day to a captive audience, the fuel that kept him going through the most difficult of times: It is not an easy road — but hope is the oxygen of my life. I have hope in humanity.

Most of us don’t have the opportunity to get to know the refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in our communities. It often feels like we are simply observers, unable to help in a way that matters. The statistics are overwhelming. Currently 70.8 million individuals (1 out of 108 people on the planet) wander the earth either as refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons. This is even more than after World War II.

Our legislators have failed to come up with a sensible plan for comprehensive immigration reform, a complex problem that impacts so many human beings. The intensity of political rhetoric about the plight of refugees has grown more intense, especially with the recent announcement by the president to enforce mass deportations.

World Refugee Day was established in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This document defines the term “refugee” and outlines the rights of the displaced as well as legal obligation of countries to protect them. The key principle is that a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threat to life or freedom.

A little-known fact: When the convention was established, most people thought that the Refugee Convention would be needed for only a few years, until the WWII refugees were resettled. Regrettably, they were wrong.

One famous refugee was the great artist Marc Chagall. Saved by the International Rescue Committee in 1941 from France, Chagall came to America. Like so many other refugees, his work has enriched our country, as have other refugees who have made major cultural, scientific, medical, technological and economic contributions to America.

This week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in commemoration of World Refugee Day, took a stand. It covered Chagall’s famous painting, “The Lovers”. The image in the museum, of a beautiful painting shrouded as if it never existed, provides a powerful metaphor of the indescribable loss to America had it not received refugees throughout its history, in all aspects of life.

Refugees are not here to take from us. Rather, they are here because they had no choice but to flee their native country. They came here for a safe haven and to contribute to this country. Many have demonized them, but we should uplift them for having made the choice to live. Of course, not all people seeking safe haven can be admitted, but it is time that our leaders in Washington create a plan that is sensible, human and fair. It is past the time for us to demand that.

On this World Refugee Day let us consider how diminished we would be without the many refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who help to sustain life here in the Napa Valley. Let us take time to listen to their stories, their hopes and dreams. Let us work to provide a safe haven for a few more asylee families who have nowhere to go and simply want to work hard in a safe environment. Let us see in the eyes of the refugee, the eyes of our loved ones, our children. If you look carefully, you will see that the eyes are the same.

Meron leaves us with a strong message to consider on World Refugee Day. My calling is to give voice to those who have no voice. I want to see a world where words like human dignity, human rights, respect, kindness, compassion, and peace are more than just nice words. In my dreams, I believe that this world can be transformed. That will happen when we each take on a little more responsibility and act to empower and uplift.

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Lee Bycel is rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley and the author of the forthcoming book, “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words,” coming in September, 2019 from Rutgers University Press.