all four stand on a beach surveying the scene, mounds of life preservers behind them
On the scene in Lesbos are (from left) Muslim trip participant Farhanaz Kermalli from LA, Dr. Kefah Khwaladi from Israel, Rabbi Marvin Goodman and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. Behind them is a large pile of used life preservers. (Photo/Rabbi Chai Levy)

On interfaith mission to Greece, rabbis and Muslims bear witness to refugee pain

Rabbi Marvin Goodman brought home a souvenir from his recent trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, but it won’t be sitting on a display shelf in his living room any time soon.

Goodman, who led a delegation of Bay Area rabbis and Muslim community leaders to Greece in late April to assess the refugee situation there, grabbed one of the estimated half-million life jackets discarded by refugees who survived the harrowing 4-mile sea voyage from Turkey to Lesbos.

Though Goodman and other members of the mission said the huge dumping ground looked like a cemetery of life vests, IsraAid officials who organized the five-day visit described the mound as a symbol of hope for people fleeing war and seeking a better life in Europe.

Goodman plans to loan the life jacket to rabbis and other delegation members to use as a visual reminder when they speak about the mission — and about the continuing challenges facing tens of thousands of refugees — in Bay Area pulpits and public forums.

In a blog recounting his experiences on Lesbos, Goodman pointed out that the group was visiting the refugees just days after Jews celebrated their emancipation from slavery during Passover.

“I pray that the individuals who are represented by each life jacket will experience their own liberation in the near future,” he wrote. “I hope they don’t have to wander for 40 years in some wilderness before they reach and experience their promised land.”

a huge pile of life jackets on a beach -- a goat stands nearby
Discarded life jackets litter the landing spot for thousands of refugees who make the perilous journey to Greece. (Photo/IsraAid-Boaz Arad)

The mountain of life preservers — which included kids’ floaties, an inner tube and a child’s Spiderman life vest — left Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Oakland’s Temple Sinai speechless.

“My immediate memory went to the piles of shoes and glasses we see in Holocaust memorials,” she said. “It’s just such a visual display of the level of despair. When you see them piled up that way, it gives you the sense of upheaval in the world today.”

For fellow traveler Abbas Moloo, a Muslim who is the founder and principal of the Jafria Islamic School in Pleasanton, the discarded life vests represented the challenges refugees face as they seek asylum in Europe and try to transition to a new life.

“It was a very emotional moment, my first reaction was ‘Oh, my God,’ ” he said. “Most of these people, when they took off their jackets, were extremely happy to arrive to safety. But the question now is what happened after they took off their life jackets.”

For almost all the refugees, that transition is long and difficult. IsraAid and other international charity groups have helped meet many of their physical needs by finding temporary housing and providing meals, but the boredom, despair and loss of empowerment for refugees is harder to overcome.

Many of the refugees — primarily from Syria, but also many from Afghanistan and Iraq — have to wait a year or more to find a permanent home in Europe. There is little chance of finding work in Greece, where the unemployment rate hovers around 23 percent, and children either can’t find a school to attend or struggle in classes taught in Greek.

the three sit on folding chairs in the sunshine
Temple Sinai Emeritus Rabbi Steve Chester (center) and trip participant Farhanaz Kermalli (right) speak with a refugee from a housing complex in Thessaloniki. (Photo/IsraAid-Boaz Arad)

“One of the things that made an incredible impression on me is the depth of the trauma that the people we met with experienced and are still experiencing, and their feeling of being in limbo,” said Rabbi Stacy Friedman of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. “What does it mean to your pride and sense of self if you can’t work or go to school? They have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so there is a lot of depression.”

That’s where IsraAid comes in. The Tel Aviv-based humanitarian aid agency has not only helped the refugees by providing shelter, meals and medical care, but also is focused on the psycho-social challenges facing migrants who fled danger or oppression — only to find themselves in a long, frustrating holding pattern while seeking asylum.

IsraAid’s interfaith staff on Lesbos includes Muslim and Jewish workers. Many IsraAid workers speak Arabic, and bond with refugees from countries where Israelis had been seen as enemies.

Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAid, told the Bay Area rabbis about a man from Damascus whose daughter was treated by the organization’s medics for hypothermia when their boat capsized. After the Syrian family settled in Stockholm, the man contacted Polizer and offered to help fight the wildfires that were burning in Israel.

IsraAid also has worked to help victims of tragedies such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Ebola crisis in West Africa and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 in the Philippines. The organization, which opened a satellite office last year in San Francisco, has responded to crises in nearly 40 countries and has been working with refugees on Lesbos since 2015.

“When there’s a disaster or a tragedy, all these humanitarian agencies around the world show up,” said Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. “After the first three months, everybody goes home or goes on to the next emergency, but there are all these long-term needs people have. That’s one of the things IsraAid is focusing on, is the long-term development and long-term needs of the refugees.”

Beth Israel Judea Rabbi Danny Gottlieb with a refugee on the Greek islands of Lesbos. (Photo/IsraAid-Boaz Arad)
Beth Israel Judea Rabbi Danny Gottlieb (on right) with a refugee on the Greek islands of Lesbos. (Photo/IsraAid-Boaz Arad)

Goodman, who retired in March as executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, approached Polizer in mid-2016 about a trip to Greece by Bay Area rabbis, and the Koret Foundation offered to help support the trip with a $7,500 grant.

Polizer stressed that he wanted it to be an interfaith group. Goodman said some Muslims who were interested in joining the mission were scared off by the Trump administration’s travel ban, so the group ended up with nine rabbis and three Muslims.

The delegation also included Rabbi Beth Singer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Rabbi Sarah Graff of Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, Rabbi Emeritus Steve Chester of Oakland’s Temple Sinai and retired Rabbi Allen Bennett, as well as Sohail Abdullah of Florida-based nonprofit Comfort Aid International and Farhanaz Kermalli, a Los Angeles-based senior policy analyst in international affairs.

The travelers met in Athens and then spent two days in Thessaloniki, where the migrants they met included Iraqi Yazidis, an ethnic minority that has come under attack by ISIS. That was followed by two days on Lesbos, where IsraAid has helped get most of the refugees out of tents and into apartments, hotels and shipping containers that have been converted into living spaces.

“The problem is that it’s not home, and there are no prospects of it being home,” Goodman said. “Nobody wants to stay in Greece because of the unemployment rate. So they’re in limbo.”

Since their return to the Bay Area, several of the rabbis have given sermons about the refugee situation. Moloo, who is on the board of UnitedWeREACH, a Pakistan-based nonprofit that focuses on helping underprivileged students, has been contemplating setting up an education program for refugee children.

two women sit talking, one wearing a hijab
An IsraAid staff member with a refugee at Filoxenia housing complex in Thessaloniki, Greece (Photo/IsraAid-Boaz Arad)

And mission members have been thinking of ways to build support for IsraAid and the refugees. They said giving cash is better than donating food and supplies, since the refugees can use donated money to support the local economy on Lesbos — which has suffered because tourism is way down — by buying groceries or even gifts for their children for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr in June.

But perhaps the best way for the rabbis to help IsraAid and the refugees is by telling their stories.

“They are not only wonderful ambassadors, they are also educators and bridge builders,” Polizer said in an email. “Our goal is to humanize the refugee crisis and to spread the word that this is actually an incredible opportunity to change people’s perspectives and build bridges of hope.”

Levy said a lot of people “have fear about refugees” and need to better understand the crisis.

“I think a lot of the refugees we met wanted their stories understood. I feel we need to share the stories,” she said. “These are people fleeing for their lives, these are families that were in really scary situations, ISIS was trying to kill them, the Taliban was trying to kill them. These were very vulnerable people we met.”

Mates-Muchin said discussing the refugees’ plight with congregants and others in the Bay Area is all part of familiarizing people with social justice issues.

“Some of those stories will move my community to look at the world right around us that we get numb to, such as homelessness and racism,” she said. “It’s all part of the same conversation.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.