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Strangers in a strange land – HIAS fills the gap



The Pesach story delves deep into the idea of being a refugee, the meaning of freedom, and the imperative of welcoming the stranger, so it’s meaningful that a new Jewish organisation, HIAS South Africa, devoted to these ideas, recently opened in South Africa.

More than 100 years ago, Jews in the United States founded HIAS – originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – in New York City, the immigrant gateway to America. Supporting Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe, the founders were guided by the traditions, texts, and history of the Jewish people, a history of oppression, displacement, and diaspora. HIAS has since helped generations of Jews facing violence, and remains committed to helping Jewish refugees anywhere in the world.

Today, HIAS is a multi-continent, multi-pronged humanitarian aid and advocacy organisation with thousands of employees dedicated to helping all forcibly displaced people around the world, in keeping with the organisation’s Jewish ethical roots.

When a shooter opened fire and killed 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, he cited HIAS as the reason he wanted to attack Jews. The organisation hasn’t let his hatred deter it in its vital work, now the world’s oldest refugee agency has opened a branch in this country, headed up by community activist Alana Baranov.

“HIAS provides vital services to refugees and asylum seekers in more than 20 countries,” says Baranov. “We advocate for the rights of all forcibly displaced people to rebuild their lives and seek to create a world in which they find welcome, safety, and opportunity.”

Explaining how the South African branch came about, Baranov says, “I’ve been working with HIAS for the past 10 years. It has a relationship with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies [SAJBD], and when Mark Hetfield, the chief executive of HIAS would come out to South Africa, I would help on behalf of the SAJBD and organise meetings for him with the refugee community and refugee organisations.

“Over the past decade, I’ve attended meetings of HIAS internationally, and we’ve always spoken about how amazing it would be for HIAS to be here in South Africa. Last year, there were two scoping missions to the country. The first was in February, the second in August.

“During those two missions, the leadership of HIAS came out and learned more about the context in South Africa, the challenges in the country, and the challenges specifically for the refugee and asylum seeker community,” says Baranov. “They met Jewish communal leaders and refugee and asylum seeker nongovernment organisations (NGOs), and wider community leaders. It was then decided that it would open officially in the country. We started operations on 1 October 2023.

“We’re initially based in Durban,” says Baranov. “That’s because it’s a province that has a refugee population and there are some NGOs that work with refugees and asylum seekers but not really a plethora of organisations. Gaps exist, and there’s an opening for HIAS to come in and make a critical difference. We want to grow slowly and sustainably, but the plan is that we’ll soon expand to other regions in the country and into various sectors.”

HIAS has five signature approaches: providing legal services and support; working to end gender-based violence; community-based mental health programmes; economic inclusion; and advocacy.

“Because we’re a small office, we’re initially going to focus on two key areas,” says Baranov. “The first is legal protection, to assist refugees with the correct documentation, running legal help desks, and free legal clinics for refugees. We’ll also be running ‘know your rights’ campaigns – getting information out to the refugee community and the broader South African public about the rights that refugees and asylum seekers have in the country. We’ll also see where we can assist other NGOs in the sector with strategic litigation on key points of refugee policy.”

“The second focus will be on combating, preventing, and addressing rampant xenophobia in South Africa. Xenophobia is becoming entrenched and is only growing, and we want to see how HIAS South Africa can be involved in terms of advocacy, engaging with the media, with civil society networks and initiatives, being involved in interfaith work, and doing what we can to combat this hate.

“HIAS South Africa sees itself as playing a convening role, because we have such a vibrant civil society in South Africa with so much amazing work being done on these issues,” says Baranov. “We don’t want to come in and re-invent the wheel, rather to see where there are gaps where we can bring our best practice and expertise from our other offices around the globe, and to help resource and increase capacity in local networks and local refugee-led organisations.

“At Pesach, we gather together to tell the story of the Jewish people’s original flight from persecution, and we hold in our minds the more than 110 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes,” says Baranov. “On this holiday, we know that our own freedom is inextricable from that of all people fleeing violence and toward safety.”

She recommends downloading the HIAS haggadah from the organisation’s website. “Updated in 2023/5783, it’s full of readings and stories which connect the foundational liberation story of the Jewish people with the reality of the refugee experience in the 21st century.

“We’re told 36 times in the Torah to love those who are strangers,” says Baranov. “We understand that their stories are our story. We see our past and our future in their search for safety and a safe future for generations to come.”

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  1. Abigail Sarah

    Apr 18, 2024 at 4:57 pm

    I personally feel it would be better to focus one’s attention and time and finances on Jewish refugees arriving in Israel.
    These are our people and they need all the help and support they can get

  2. Abigail Sarah

    Apr 19, 2024 at 3:06 am

    Rather give to Meir Panim
    You can google it
    A much more worthy organisation

  3. Steven Smith

    Apr 22, 2024 at 3:36 pm

    As we’ve seen how the South Africa current government turned on the Jews for a few dollars in their pockets, we must remember and move forward that this is the way things are. I strongly believe that we should mainly support our own kind (jewish) in difficult times we should support real Jewish organizations that are a much more worthy cause – they don’t bring in migrants that are claiming to be Jewish in order to get acceptance into the USA in other countries.

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