a black man smiles, sitting in a wooden chair
Meron Semedar, one of 40,000 Eritreans in the U.S. (Photo/Courtesy Dona Kopol Bonick)

Refugees’ stories illuminate universal pain of leaving home

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In “Refugees in America,” Rabbi Lee T. Bycel introduces his book with lines from a poem by British-based writer and activist Warsan Shire, born in Kenya to Somali parents: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

No doubt Jewish journalist and political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in the early 1940s — and whom Bycel quotes a bit later — would concur.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life,” Arendt wrote of her fellow refugees. “We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expressions of feelings.”

Those who decide to leave everyone and everything they know to escape “horrific situations,” such as civil wars, gang retaliation and totalitarian regimes, do not do so lightly, Bycel said in a recent phone interview with J. The 70-year-old rabbi is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Ethics and Refugees Studies at the University of San Francisco and a longtime humanitarian and social justice activist.

“Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience, and Hope in Their Own Words,” Bycel’s first book, contains 11 profiles of individuals who fled their homelands, such as Vanny Loun of Cambodia, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, and Jawad Khawari of Afghanistan, who ran from the Taliban. Their travails in their home countries and their arduous treks — Meron Semedar covertly walked over the border into Sudan to break free of Eritrea’s dictatorship, for example — are recounted mostly in the subjects’ own words. Bycel interjects only to fill in historic background or move the narrative forward.

“Every morning, and it was December and there was a lot of ice, we had to line up and stand still for hours, like in the army, straight on our feet on the ice,” relates Polish-born Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax about her early days at Auschwitz. “If anybody hadn’t relieved themselves in the bathroom early in the morning, they were killed right in front of us.”

Bycel’s advocacy for the importance of documenting genocide has a long provenance. In 1988 he was a guest of the German government to observe how the Holocaust was being taught. A former Western region executive director for American Jewish World Service, he focused on refugee issues, traveling frequently to Africa. He was in Rwanda for the 12th commemoration of their genocide in 2006. He was appointed to the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014, and serves on the board of 3DG, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors tell their stories using film.

Having visited refugee camps in Darfur, Chad, South Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Haiti over the years with nongovernmental organizations as part of humanitarian efforts, he said he felt it was imperative to humanize the stories of people who often become casualties of the political tensions between pro- and anti-immigrant forces. He said he was particularly frustrated in 2014 when the House of Representatives “did not take up the comprehensive immigration bill” crafted by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” which included the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But his concern for refugees, along with every individual and group marginalized in this country, hearkens back to his faith tradition, he said, calling it a “caring for the most vulnerable [that] comes out of our deepest Jewish roots.”

an old woman in a green shirt talking
Sidonia Lax, 93-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor (Photo/Courtesy Dona Kopol Bonick)

Bycel said his personal empathy for the dispossessed also comes from his upbringing in a blue collar, working-class suburb of Los Angeles, where his household was reminiscent of the Loman family in the classic Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman.” Bycel’s father was a salesman and a compulsive gambler who lost huge amounts of money, along with businesses, on card games and at the races. His mother was ahead of her times, one of two women in her law school class in the 1930s, who held the family together by becoming a kindergarten teacher.

It was a “complex, problematic” household, Bycel recalls. “I was the peacemaker.”

All of the individuals profiled in in “Refugees,” some of whom Bycel met through connections to immigrant and relief organizations, are presented in a rich narrative portrait. Bycel partnered with professional photographer Dona Kopol Bonick of Napa, who took nine of the 11 color images of the refugees appearing at each chapter’s start.

Kopol Bonick, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley, which Bycel led from 2012 to 2017, said the rabbi told her that she need not stay for the entire interview sessions with the refugees, each of which could last up to three hours. “You can come in while I am speaking to the interviewee, take the picture and leave,’” she recalled him saying.

But “I quickly realized it was important to stay” for the whole interview, Kopol Bonick said. “It’s a very personal, intimate situation … You see people change physically as they share their stories, which were heartbreaking and fascinating. It was an honor to be there.”

Rabbi Lee Bycel will appear at book events throughout the fall, including at 5 p.m. Sept. 22 at Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley; 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Book Passage Corte Madera, 1:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco and Nov. 22 at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. Proceeds from book sales will be divided between the refugee resettlement nonprofits HIAS and IRC. refugeesinamerica.com

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.