Friday, November 27, 2015

When my wife Miriam had stage 3 colon cancer in 2003, it was refugee who saved her life. Her internist, Dr. Irinia Vilenskaya, a refugee from the USSR, and her husband, oncologist Dr. Gregory Braslavsky, stepped in after other doctors had essentially turned her away.
I am grateful every day that the United States welcomed them with open arms.
Doctors Vilenskaya and Braslavsky were part of a wave of Jews fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in the Soviet Union. I worked with many of them when I was stationed in Rome in 1989 for HIAS, a Jewish organization that at the time was dedicated to helping Jews escape life-threatening persecution. Many had survived the Nazis, the Communists, and their efforts to wipe out Jewish religion and culture. They wanted to live in a place where they could, for the first time in their lives be proud to be Jewish.
Today, I am proud to serve as president of that same organization, which now helps refugees of many faiths and ethnicities, here in the United States and around the world.And I’m proud of President Obama for welcoming them to our country.
Protecting refugees remains as urgent today as it was then. As it says in Torah, we know the heart of the stranger, because we were once strangers ourselves. HIAS has helped hundreds of families, not so different from yours or mine, who take on the challenge of starting a new life in a new country with tremendous tenacity and grace.
Because I know what refugees like Dr. Vilenskaya have contributed to this country, it breaks my heart that for some Americans a justifiable fear of terrorism has translated into fear of the other, and especially fear of refugees from Syria.
Refugees are not terrorists; they are people fleeing terror. And we can welcome them into our country while also making sure we’re safe. In fact, refugee applicants have to go through the most intensive screening of any type of traveler to the U.S.
However, fear has gotten the better of many governors who have declared that they will not accept the resettlement of Syrian refugees into their states. Openly declaring that refugees are not welcome here damages the character of this country. This type of xenophobic fear from some governors makes it much harder for nonprofit resettlement agencies like mine to welcome refugees into their new communities.
That's why it means so much that President Obama is standing up for refugees. As he said, "slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That's not who we are. And it's not what we're going to do."
I'm thankful to President Obama for standing up for refugees. I hope you'll take a stand, too.
Thank you,
Mark Hetfield