From Refusniks to Dreamers: Americans and Immigration Policy


Connie Smukler (bottom left) with “refusniks” Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, and an American official

— by Hannah Lee

Jews have an abiding faith in immigration, going back to our Biblical roots and continuing with our arrival in the United States. This faith also showed last century, with the movement to free Soviet Jewry, in which Philadelphian Jews had a prominent role. Finally, the recent discussions on immigration reform resonate for many Jewish people. These were the topics of a forum held on June 20 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, and coordinated by the Russian-Speaking Professionals Network of Greater Philadelphia.

Connie Smukler shared stories of her many trips to the Soviet Union, meeting with prominent (and ordinary) “refusniks,” and lobbying for their freedom. Marina Merlin, now working for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, spoke of her family’s struggle to leave their country, which was painstakingly slow, degrading, and financially draining, as her husband had to leave his beloved job as a physicist in order to keep his co-workers from scrutiny by the KGB (the Soviet security agency).

Igor Kotler, executive director of the Museum of Human Rights, Freedom and Tolerance, gave an overview of the Soviet Jewry movement, dating its forming to 1969, when a group of Georgian Jews asked permission to leave for Israel. This was a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, that put Israel in the headlines and gave Russian Jews the impetus to study their Jewish heritage and history.

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The honorable Carlos Giralt-Cabrales, consul-general of Mexico in Philadelphia, gave the keynote speech, in which he noted that the Mexican immigration started with an invitation, by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to replenish the agricultural labor force during World War II. Under what was known as the Bracero Program, about 4 1/2 million workers migrated to the United States since August 1942 and until the end of the program in 1964. Another interesting point was that this was a temporary migration, with the workers returning home to Mexico. The border enforcements of recent times broke the pattern of seasonal migration, which led to a permanent and often undocumented settlement in the United States.

Giralt-Cabrales said that there is a social and economic contradiction in the undocumented immigration, as we need the labor, but do not want the workers. “As next-door neighbors, it behooves us to seek a workable solution to our common problem,” he said. The Consul-General deems the Mexican immigration as a strictly economic one, as workers move to where there are plenty of jobs.

Judi Bernstein-Baker, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, noted the differences and similarities between the movement to free Soviet Jewry and today’s struggle of immigrants to achieve a path to citizenship. The Soviet Jewry movement was a reaction to totalitarianism and a striving for religious freedom. The similarity between the two struggles is that it took protests, rallies, allies and legislation for exchange. Bernstein-Baker explained that many immigrants have lived in the U.S. for 10 or 20 years in the shadows, and supporting their effort to participate in the mainstream by earning a path to citizenship is “a very Jewish thing to do.”


Maria Sotomayer and a young ally at a rally with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition

Maria Sotomayer is one of the young “DREAMers,” who are advocates for potential beneficiaries of the Development, Relief, and Education For Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a conditional path to lawful permanent residence for certain undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. She arrived from Ecuador when she was nine, her parents worked in several jobs, and she earned good grades in school. But her prospects without documentation would be low-skill jobs such as hers at the pizza shop. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, issued by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012, changed her life. She has since graduated from Neumnann College, obtained a work permit, and now works for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. She hopes to attend graduate school to study psychology.

Bernstein-Baker noted that the publicity of the temporary opportunity for young aliens to apply for legal status with a work permit, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license — all under DACA — has broadened awareness of other avenues for legal status, already in place, such as for young immigrants who had been abused, abandoned, or victims of trafficking.

“The tenor of the public debate on immigration has shifted rapidly in recent years,” says Francois Ihor-Mazur, an immigrant lawyer, who no longer hears the query, “Why don’t you go to the back of the line, because there is no line to go behind.”

A central message of the program was that this is country “was built by immigrants, for immigrants,” said Giralt-Cabrales. It was an absorbing symposium that generated much food for thought, as well as continuing education credits for the lawyers in the audience.

An Ethiopian Jew’s Journey

— by Hannah Lee

I met Barak Avraham, known as Malaku in his native Amharic, during his 2-week tour of the United States on behalf of AMIT, which supports a network of 108 schools and programs in 29 cities in Israel. Avraham’s personal story is a marvelous case study of how AMIT schools turn around individual lives and whole towns. His trek began at age 9 when he walked, with his mother and four siblings, for three weeks from their village of Abu Zava to the city of Gondar in Ethiopia. Sleeping outdoors at night, they were at the peril of anti-Semites, who recognized them as Jews and strangers. (His non-Jewish father, already divorced, stayed at home.)

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Back in their village, his maternal family dreamed of going to Jerusalem, a place like Paradise where people wear white garments and they do not have to work. After waiting eight months, they were accepted for flight aboard the covert Operation Solomon, which airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in a 36-hour mission in May, 1991. Before boarding, Avraham’s mother buried their remaining Ethiopian money, birr, because she thought they would not need money in the Promised Land.

Avraham’s memories of his childhood in Ethiopa included Pesach, when they eagerly anticipated the gift of matzot delivered by shluchim (emissaries), homemade soccer balls fashioned from old socks and electrical wire, and a world without television or cars, just as life was lived 200 years before. The transition from a traditional society to a modern one was especially hard for the elders, such as his grandparents who arrived later. His family spent a year in an absorption center, merkaz klita, learning to adjust to Israeli ways, including eating with forks and knives. Ethiopian foods, such as teff and injera, are eaten with the right hand.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood and with a single mother, Avraham lost his way when he was in his “foolish teen years,” tipesh esrei, when he was expelled from one school after another. No one wanted him any longer. This was a painful period for his mother, who cried in shame and sadness. “I decided that I was going to change. That if my mother was going to cry because of me, it would be with pride, not from sorrow.” On the advice of a friend attending school at the AMIT Kfar Blatt Youth Village in Petach Tikva, he wrote a letter of appeal to the director, Amiran Cohen. A visionary educator, Cohen had him sign a pledge of changes he would make in his life.

Cohen, who became a special friend, and the support network of surrogate parents, teachers, and social workers helped Avraham focus his intelligence. He had always been told that he had “much potential.” Upon passing the bagrut, matriculation exams, he was accepted into an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served with distinction as an outstanding soldier. His mother cried with pride and joy at this completion ceremony.

The IDF taught him discipline and it broadened Avraham’s horizons. He listened as his army mates of different backgrounds from all over the country shared their dreams for the future. He knew then he had to get an education, which was assisted by an IMPACT scholarship from the Friends of the IDF. He was the valedictorian and the top Ethiopian student graduating with a degree in government diplomacy from The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Later, when he earned a master’s in public service, also from the IDC, he gave a speech before an audience of 4,000 and his mother cried again from joy.

Now 30, Avraham is an entrepreneur and founder of an Internet start-up company and manager of a teen community house in Petach Tikva. He is also coordinator of a new program at the AMIT Rambam Elementary School in Netanya. Rambam was a failing school. The Ministry of Education appealed to AMIT to rescue this school, and AMIT now plans to designate it a magnet school, an innovative model that brings together in one school the top-achieving students with the most needy ones. Avraham’s program includes football (soccer to Americans), mentoring, and parent support. Coming from the same poor neighborhood and background, Avraham gives the children confidence that they, too, can succeed.

Avraham’s newest dream is to join the Knesset in the next election. A Social Democrat, he parts ways with the older Ethiopians who tend to vote Likud, although “it’s capitalist,” and they’re poor but they vote for the country’s security needs. His mother, for one, cannot bear to hear anything bad against Israel. (The Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in January, has two Ethiopians in its cabinet.) Barak Avraham’s future was paved by the caring leaders and staff of the AMIT schools.