By Zachary Berman, NFTY Southern Tropical
In NFTY, teens are fortunate to live in countries where freedom, order, and equality prevail. However, in many countries across the world, other people and other teens do not have the same opportunities to freely express their opinions, work towards change, and practice their own religions.
The United Nations Refugee Agency currently estimates that there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, not to mention the other 44 million currently displaced persons. Over half of all refugees are under the age of 18. As Jews, we were once refugees in the land of Egypt, wandering the Sinai Peninsula and Judean Hills for about 40 years. This is part of the reason why NFTY chose refugee resettlement as this year’s Study Theme, along with its relevancy to our world today.
Last week, NFTY’s Southern Tropical Region was given the unique opportunity to experience life as a Syrian refugee at their annual 4-night Winter Regional event in Orlando, Florida. During a program masked as a workshop regarding the Jewish Exodus, a subtle connection to the actual theme of refugee resettlement, about 170 participants were abruptly told to grab their “passports” and evacuate the room. Similar to refugees, participants had no idea where they were going or what they were doing. Teens were taken to a dark room, illuminated only by few flashlights, where walls were lined with pictures and quotes of Syrian children, signs in various languages, and messages of intolerance as the room burst with sounds of bombs and people screaming. This experience not only gave participants a sense of what the refugee experience is like, but also created a sense of empathy and willingness to help others in need, a core Jewish value.
After participants had the opportunity to wander around the room, teens, “immigrated” to the random country listed on their passport, where they were either denied or accepted entrance by “border patrol”. Participants attempted to fill out an asylum application, and a writing test in foreign languages. This activity emphasized both the difficulty and the bravery it takes to leave life behind and move to a new nation. Finally, after waiting in their respective countries for what seemed like an eternity, given small bread rations to divide, and hearing program leaders banging on the doors, begging to enter (again, for dramatic effect), participants were finally released from their “countries” (breakout rooms) and came together as one community to hear a very special group of guest speakers.
Although not Jewish, this program partnered with the Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s refugee resettlement program. This outstanding and illustrious program has similar values to those of Reform Judaism, aiming to band people together to influence others and change the world. The Catholic Charities was gracious enough to bring in a family of 5 Syrian refugees who moved to the Orlando area merely four months prior after living in Jordan as refugees for 5 years. Although the family did not speak English, their message, interpreted through a translator, really stuck with participants. The family’s explanation of how conflict changed their lives as well as their personal sacrifices, values, and ideals demonstrated the bravery and fearlessness it takes to risk everything for a more meaningful life. The outspoken mother of three young boys reiterated her commitment to ensuring the future success of her children, a motive that many refugee parents share.
It’s so important for us as teens to not only understand the crises affecting people around the world, but also for us to truly connect with them and find ways to make our own positive impacts. Throughout this program, in both the refugee experience and speaker portions of the program, NFTY teens gained a greater understanding of life as a refugee and can hopefully put their shared Reform Jewish values into action.