Officers taking a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody near McAllen, Texas, June 12, 2018. (Photo/JTA-John Moore-Getty Images)
Officers taking a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody near McAllen, Texas, June 12, 2018. (Photo/JTA-John Moore-Getty Images)

World Refugee Day is June 20. This year, more than ever, it’s time to act.

Nobody wants to be a refugee. To be forced from your home, your family, all that is familiar. No one wants to be one of the 1,995 children separated from their families at the border, between April 19 and May 31, because of a most inhumane policy.

Every minute, 20 people must flee their land because of terror, war or persecution, according to the latest reports from the United Nations.

I’ve listened to the horrific stories of refugees in the camps of eastern Chad, and talked to displaced people in Haiti, survivors of genocide in Rwanda and many who settled in the United States. They want the same things we do: safety, opportunity and the ability to contribute to society.

Their deep sense of humanity, especially given the nightmare of their lives, has impacted me greatly.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, an annual day launched in 2001 to increase awareness of what refugees endure, to stand in solidarity with them and to stimulate action by countries to help them. It’s a day to acknowledge the courage, perseverance and strength of refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people on Earth.

Jews are the quintessential refugees. Starting with Egypt and throughout our history, we have been forced out of myriad countries. The Holocaust made millions of Jewish people refugees.

The Jewish community is very mindful of the challenges facing refugees. Our work is guided by a most effective organization, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which plays a critical role in advocacy and resettlement work. Their outstanding work has spawned other groups.

However, we must ask very serious questions in our own community: Can we do more than we have been doing? Is this a priority?

Compassion is not enough. It is not enough to commiserate with people risking their lives in desperate search for a haven. Policies must be in place to provide aid and home.

On this World Refugee Day, it’s time to act. We need an independent, bipartisan group of people, with great minds and large hearts who are idealistic and pragmatic, to create a compassionate, realistic policy that will admit refugees to the United States and equip them to become fully adjusted to life here.

This group should include people from the business world, refugee resettlement agencies, education spheres, the tech industry and politicians serious about finding solutions. Plus refugees themselves.

World Refugee Day reminds us we must do more; we promised to do more. But while there are solutions to even the most vexing problems in the world, all of the political rhetoric, statistics that are beyond comprehension and so many other problems, there is a growing malaise about the refugee situation.

Being human means caring about others and showing that caring through our acts.

There are more than 65 million internally displaced and stateless people in the world, according to U.N. estimates. But that number is difficult to accurately assess given the daily increase of the victims of genocide, civil unrest, ethnic cleansing, violence and environmental catastrophes (as many go unreported).

The Refugee Act of 1980 gave the president the power to set a ceiling on refugees each year. It has averaged around 85,000 annually. Last year, President Donald Trump lowered it to 45,000. Two-thirds into the 2017-18 fiscal year, only 15,000 refugees had been admitted. Fewer than 50 were from Syria.

But refugees aren’t statistics. They are people, people with the same universal qualities that make us all human. In my many visits to refugee camps, and in interviews with refugees in the U.S., I’ve heard this repeated and again: “Yes, my legal status is that of a refugee, but please don’t stereotype me. I want to be viewed as a human being.”

The people who already arrived or are seeking refuge often came from stable backgrounds before they saw their world torn asunder. They want to learn, work and contribute to society. There’s no evidence that they pose a security threat. The acts of terrorism which have taken place have not been committed by the refugees.

Solutions aren’t easy. But if framed in a way that includes ethics, compassion and humanity, better answers can and must be found.

We can locate a common humanity when we have the courage to look a refugee in the eye, and they return our gaze. That bond has nothing to do with race, ethnicity or religion. It’s about something much more important.

It’s about what it means to be human.

Being human means caring about others and showing that caring through our acts.

On this World Refugee Day, there is a great need to raise awareness and act compassionately to help refugees. And there’s a need to support legislation that exemplifies the American values reflected on our Statue of Liberty.

We show compassion when we contribute to outstanding organizations that help refugees or personally take time to meet refugee families. HIAS, the International Rescue Committee and World Relief are among the agencies that settle the most refugees in the U.S.

We can show our resolve for change in numerous ways. That includes advocating for legislation like a new bill by 32 senators to prevent the separation of children from parents, the Keep Families Together Act. Or when we oppose the latest proposal by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on denying asylum to victims of domestic or gun violence.

World Refugee Day is an opportunity to see the humanity in ourselves and others. Our futures are intertwined. And with imagination, open conversation and creative ideas, we might just find sustainable solutions.

We won’t know unless we try.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.