By Violet Kopp, Mitzvah Corps 2017 Participant
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors wandered through the desert dreaming of liberation. Today, millions still wander, millions still seek equality and freedom. When I began learning about the world’s refugee crisis as a kid, I started to better understand the importance of welcoming the stranger and supporting those in need. As Passover approaches and we prepare to gather with friends and family to read the Haggadah and retell our history as an enslaved people, we must take time to embrace the strangers in our midst and throughout the world who are still in Exodus searching for their promised land.
Last summer, the idea of welcoming the stranger took a completely different meaning when I traveled to Seattle, WA with Mitzvah Corps. In partnership with 20 of my Jewish peers from across North America and the International Rescue Committee, I came face-to-face with the stranger as we helped run a summer camp for recently resettled refugee children.
The fearful rhetoric around the refugee crisis in our country paints a different picture about these individuals than what I experienced last summer. Seeing refugees purely as a statistic — 65.3 million around the world — can demean and devalue their worth as unique people. My Mitzvah Corps experience exposed me and my peers to the unforgettable truth that every single one of those 65.3 million is a unique individual with their own stories to tell, their own dreams to pursue, their own favorite foods to eat, or movies to watch.
On the first day of camp, before our campers arrived, my peers and I were nervous as to how to act and what to say, since their cultures and languages were so different from ours. Would they be shy? Would they want to participate in the activities we had planned? Many of us had been counselors at day camps in our communities before, but this felt different. How could we make our campers feel ‘normal’?
As soon as the refugee campers arrived, we realized we were more similar than we’d thought. We were competing in soccer games, tossing around water balloons, choreographing extensive dances to Disney music, and making Play-Doh – things that all kids do. A Bhutanese 12-year-old and I shared a favorite movie. I sat with a Syrian 3rd grader and together we mastered friendship bracelet making in just a day. A Congolese girl made me laugh until there were tears in my eyes. The next two weeks proved what the American conversation on refugees does not: we did not need to make our campers feel ‘normal’, they already were. Our campers did not define themselves as Refugee, but as Artist, Soccer Player, Future Actor, Brother and Teacher.
When we say, “next year in Jerusalem”, a constant aspiration for home and security, I remember my campers — Hangama, Beelee, Namar, Uneste — still finding home and security in America. I remember the tens of millions of people with no Jerusalem, with no safe space, with no nation, with no support. This Passover, my friends from Mitzvah Corps and I will reflect on our people’s history as slaves, and then become the parting sea for refugees all over the world: leading them to freedom with ease and love.
Limited spaces are still available on 2018 Mitzvah Corps program. Nominate a teen for a life changing summer.