In recent weeks, many students have probably noticed countless posts focusing on the topic of Syrian refugees while scrolling through their newsfeed. While citizens are attempting to form opinions on this hot button issue, most do not realize there is a whole other group of refugees they have never heard of.
During the 20th century, about 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries. In order to educate students on this topic, the Jewish Student Association (JSA) and Students Support Israel (SSI) teamed up with Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) for an event called A Taste of Israel.
This event, held on Monday, Nov. 30, included a video, two guest speakers, food from Café Istanbul, and free merchandise.
Austin Reid, JSA president, said that the aim of A Taste of Israel was to give students a better understanding of Jewish refugees.
“When planning this I knew a lot of students here had never heard of this issue before,” Reid said. “I think it is a tragedy that this entire community was practically destroyed and it was never really talked about.”
The video, titled “The Forgotten Refugees,” gave a brief history of the troubles refugees faced during the 20th century. It highlighted the struggles Jews faced while they were living in Arab and Muslim countries. They were considered second class citizens and faced intimidation, harassment, beatings, rape, and even death.
The criminalization of the Jews and the ensued violence led to an exodus. Some escaped on their own while others were forced out by the government.
Refugee camps in Israel provided a safe haven for most of those who left their homes. While these camps were far from glamorous, they provided Jews with safety and independence.
After the video, attendees were introduced to two inspiring women who shared their personal and family stories.
“I always think it is super important to put a human face to stories like this,” Reid said. “I think that makes people realize how important it is”
Jackie, a refugee from Iran, spoke about her journey. She had a good education, was married, had a child, and several Muslim friends. However, because she was a Jew, Jackie was considered impure by many, despite all she had accomplished.
Conflicts began to rise, and attacks started to erupt. Both Jackie’s father and husband became very ill. Due to tensions in Iran, nobody was willing to come to the aid of her ailing family members and she was not allowed to leave to country to get help.
Jackie was told she could not leave because the government did not want her to go to Israel. They figured that if she took her young son to Israel, he would grow up to become a soldier and come back to fight Iran.
Eventually, Jackie made her way out of her country. She has now been in the United States for 26 years. She is happy to have survived and be here today. However, while holding back tears, she reminded the audience that she left behind many memories.
Shirley is a US citizen and the grandchild of an Israeli refugee with a powerful family story.
Her father’s ancestry was a combination of Spanish Jews and Eastern Jews. Her grandmother lived in Egypt and studied to be a lab technician in the 1930’s.
Her family hid their Judaism while living in Egypt. They chose to only practice Judaism at home because of the harsh penalties faced by Jews during the time. In 1956, many close friends of Shirley’s family were thrown in jail, interrogated, and even killed.
Shirley’s family was then expelled from Egypt. They received a one-way stamp on their passport and were only permitted to take one suitcase with them. They were not allowed to take jewelry. Her grandmother was forced to leave her engagement ring behind.
It was not until much later that a friend of the family has smuggled the ring into England and got it back to Shirley’s family. Due to this, Shirley was able to wear this ring when she got married. She said it is one of the only items passed down to her from her family due to the expulsion.
Shirley’s grandfather on her mother’s side experienced a pogrom, or a violent riot aimed at massacre of Jews, when he was a young boy. He hid under a family member’s skirt to survive. A civil war erupted in the 1950’s, and her grandfather left Algeria for Israel. He never spoke Arabic again because of the connection it had to the violence he faced in his earlier life.
Growing up, Shirley was exposed to stories. She emphasized to the group that these stories are not unique to the situations Jews faced. In fact, she said her family was quite lucky considering the experiences many others had during that time.
Students in attendance were interested in hearing these first-hand accounts.
“I really appreciated the two guest speakers for sharing their intimate family stories with us,” Sam Morgan, a computer science student, said. “It helps people understand these crimes and what it means to be a refugee so much more when there is a face and story behind the word.”
Despite all of the hate they and their loved ones have experienced due to their beliefs, both Jackie and Shirley are proud to be Jewish.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of,” Jackie said. “We are good people.”
Both women are also happy to share these stories with college students.
“I think it is very important to talk to young people because [they] are the next generation that’s going to vote and make political decisions,” Shirley said. “In order to do that you need to know these stories and have the full picture.”
“[Students] are here to become a better human being and gain more knowledge,” said Jackie. “More knowledge comes with knowing all different kinds of people and that is important.”