By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein
Recent headlines in Europe point to an escalating refugee crisis across the region. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates that 366,000 refugees have made the arduous trip across the Mediterranean Sea this year alone, with hundreds of thousands if not millions on the way. According to a report of the UNHCR this past June, there are 60 million refugees worldwide, an astounding number and one that will affect every corner of the globe.
It is harrowing to see the plight of these individuals and families. They come from war-torn sections of the world like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, and feel they have no other choice but to pick up their roots from places their families have lived for generations and seek asylum elsewhere.
Here in Buffalo, we too have seen an uptick on asylum seekers, albeit on a smaller level than we are seeing now in Europe. The New York State Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance states that 6,294 refugees resettled in Erie County between 2010 and 2014.
Jewish Family Service and the three other Western New York resettlement agencies will assist approximately 1,500 more in 2015. Largely from North Africa, Asia and the Middle East, these new residents of Western New York have had to adapt to a new community, new culture and often a new language. And, as many as 30 percent of this population bears the scars of having been tortured in their home countries.
As a member of the Jewish community, I am especially sensitive to the plight of these heroic individuals. Several generations ago, a large section of the Jewish population was making the same journey, whether fleeing pogroms in Russia or the Nazis in Europe. Therefore, it is a point of pride that the Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County is one of the leading voices with its Refugee Resettlement Program and its recent opening of the Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture.
This new center, developed in partnership with University at Buffalo Family Medicine and Journey’s End Refugee Services, helps refugees and asylum seekers suffering with the consequences of torture to rebuild their lives in America. Services focus on conducting forensic exams and coordinating care between doctors and lawyers making the case for asylum as well as providing survivors with education and support services to help them heal and adjust to their new community.
Other local organizations, like Catholic Charities, the International Institute of Buffalo and Jericho Road Community Health Center, have also played key roles in meeting the needs of our local refugees. Moving forward, it is vital that we not see the refugee crisis in Europe as someone else’s problem, but one that impacts our own community as well.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein, of Congregation Shir Shalom, is president of the Network of Religious Communities.