Libyan refugee tells Arab moms to stop spreading culture of hate

For Gina Waldman, the path from a childhood in Libya to becoming a Bay Area-based human rights activist is straighter than it might sound.

Expelled from her homeland 36 years ago because she is Jewish, Waldman became an outspoken advocate for Soviet refuseniks, Bosnian refugees and now, her own people.

She is a co-founder of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA, formed locally in the wake of Sept. 11 to educate the public about "the forgotten Middle East refugees."

A 55-year-old Tiburon resident, Waldman says she is one of an estimated 900,000 Jews who were forced to leave Arab countries over a 20-year period starting in 1947. She estimates that fewer than 8,000 Jews remain in those areas.

"We want to show that our plight should not be ignored, especially in view of Palestinian issues," she said. "We are not a colonizing people. We come from the Middle East."

The timing is good for that message, notes Waldman. "People are ready to hear the story."

To that end, she and other JIMENA members have spent recent months telling it to students on college campuses stretching from Yale to UCLA, to congregants at synagogues, and to other Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. The group will hold a conference on "Forgotten Refugees: Jews Expelled from Arab Countries" Sunday, March 23 at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

In their presentations, Waldman and her colleagues give personal accounts and make comparisons with today's treatment of Palestinian refugees. "We just want them to take us as an example and learn from us," she said.

Waldman's immigration story is also included in the recently published "120 HIAS Stories," a book celebrating the 120th anniversary of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

"Look at me," said Waldman in a recent interview. "I don't look like a refugee. Why? Because my community wouldn't allow it."

If Arab leaders "cared more about their people, they wouldn't let it happen" to the Palestinians either, she maintains.

"The hidden agenda," she says of the current crisis, is that Arab leaders "want the destruction of Israel more than they want the resettlement of refugees."

Noting that 600,000 Jewish exiles immigrated to Israel, Waldman said, "We are not sitting in refugee camps because our community would not allow it."

In her talks, she also tries to appeal to Palestinian mothers to "stop giving your children the culture of hate."

She calls hate a "weapon of mass destruction."

Born in Libya, Waldman and her family fled their homeland in 1967 in the midst of anti-Jewish riots coinciding with the outbreak of the Six-Day War. En route to the airport, they narrowly escaped an attempt to burn their bus.

A month after arriving in Rome, the then-19-year-old Waldman showed up at the local HIAS office and said, "I want to go to the United States."

Told that she needed to be 21 to apply, Waldman returned on her birthday two years later. She said the HIAS intake worker was so impressed by her determination that she sent Waldman to the American Consulate to begin the process.

Waldman needed a sponsor — and found one in the mother of a friend from her Swiss boarding school.

"Sight unseen, this woman takes me into her home," said Waldman of her host, the late San Francisco resident Ruth Karfiol, the mother of her friend Judith Karfiol. Waldman lived with Karfiol rent-free for a year.

"She never expected anything back," said Waldman. "I was part of the household."

Within three days of her arrival, Waldman, who speaks five languages, landed a job in the international department of Security Pacific Bank. A short time later, she became active as a volunteer in rallies and other events on behalf of Soviet Jews.

Within a year, she was hired as executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry and worked there for more than a decade.

She made strong connections with her clients. "We really bonded," she said. "I had been a refugee."

Once, she smuggled a letter out of Moscow written by Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and delivered it to his wife in Italy. Waldman believes the letter contained Sakharov's 1975 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he was unable to get in person.

In the 1990s, she helped resettle Bosnian Muslim refugees moving to the Bay Area as a volunteer for Jewish Family and Children's Services. She has stayed in contact with those families, noting proudly that "they make me bread all the time."

These days, her attention is focused on speaking engagements for JIMENA.

"We don't do any Arab bashing," she says. "We just tell what happened to us."

And it all traces back to her own story and the help she got long ago from HIAS. "I brought them a lot of customers," said Waldman. "More than they bargained for."