Connections and reflections
By Martha Stein
When I was asked to participate in a panel discussion for Refugee Shabbat at Temple Beth Israel in Bath, I readily agreed. The invitation was made by Joanne Rosenthal, my friend, neighbor, and one of the founders of the MidCoast New Mainers Group. I looked forward to the conversation with other nonprofit and immigrant community leaders. I love talking about our work at Hope Acts and learning from others.
An enthusiastic group gathered on February 4 for a potluck meal and short Shabbat service with featured speaker Odette Zouri. Odette is a midcoast community leader originally from Burkina Faso. She is an ambitious, giving woman. Odette will complete her degree in nursing this coming spring. She volunteers in the community, is a devoted mother of two school-age children, and works full time as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Odette’s empathy and ability to find personal connections with anyone and everyone is a profound example of how our shared humanity can bring people together.
The Saturday morning service by Temple Beth Israel’s Rabbi Lisa Vindikoor was conducted in both Hebrew and English. As I was listening to familiar prayers and songs that have been chanted for centuries, and thinking about our upcoming panel discussion on immigration, vivid memories of my Russian-Ukrainian grandma rushed into my head. She arrived in the U.S. as a teenager in the early 1900s, fleeing pogroms (organized massacres of Jewish people in Russia and eastern Europe). As a youngster, I could not fathom her immigrant experience or understand her traditions and food choices – like tea drunk from a glass, rather than a cup or mug, her love of borscht (beet soup), the bread she ate with every dinner – no matter what else we were eating.
Rabbi Vindikoor linked the Jewish experience of fleeing antisemitism to the experiences of today’s immigrants in Maine – many of whom are also fleeing hatred and persecution. Another flashback to my grandma. This time it is the early 1970s. I was about 10 years old. My father brought my older sister, my grandmother, and me to the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Fiddler” is about the challenges of a poor Eastern European Jewish family in 1905. The family and their Jewish neighbors are forced to flee at the movie’s end because of ongoing pogroms. Sitting in the synagogue in Bath over 40 years later, I remember seeing tears streaming down my grandmother’s face while she quietly sobbed as the movie credits rolled.
As I refocused on the service, Rabbi Vindikoor was sharing the story of a ship called the St. Louis that left Nazi Germany in 1939. Most of the ship’s 937 passengers were Jews fleeing violence and persecution because of their religion. The St. Louis was blocked by immigration authorities in Cuba, the U.S., and Canada, and ultimately returned to Europe, which was a death sentence for hundreds of passengers. My brain raced again. I had heard this story so many times, including very recently. . . but when?
Suddenly, I knew the answer – from Richard Berman, the man who purchased our organization’s building, Hope House, enabling Hope Acts to house asylum seekers and provide services for the community over the past 10 years. Richard has shared the story of his relatives, who were aboard the ill-fated St. Louis and later perished in the death camps of Nazi Germany, a number of times over the years. He shared it again with the Hope Acts board of directors on the occasion of his donation of Hope House to our organization, so that asylum seekers will always have a place to call home in Maine.
So much in life comes full circle. As Mainers, those of us who are not Indigenous have family immigration stories of our own, and quite a few involved severe hardship. Certainly Jewish Mainers and recent asylum seekers have much in common.
What is Refugee Shabbat? HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee agency formed in 1902 to help Jews fleeing violence and persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, created this event five years ago. Jewish congregations worldwide are encouraged to set aside a Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath that begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sunset on Saturday) to learn about asylum seekers and refugees and to take action to support immigrants – direct service, advocacy, or other forms of support
Lighting my road
By Odette Zouri
As I stand in front of you today, I would like to pay tribute to my patients, who remind me of what life is about: connecting to each other and sharing the light. What keeps me going is the hope that there is a better tomorrow for each one of us, no matter what tomorrow – or the next day after that – brings.
Once I spent an entire night with a man suffering from delirium. He couldn’t rest in bed for more than 10 minutes. He couldn’t sleep. He was very confused. But at some point we were able to engage in conversation. He talked about his wife and children; he talked about his immigrant parents from Sicily, Italy. We talked for hours. … In the morning, he was almost back to his baseline. I was back to myself, too. At the time, I had been going through one of the hardest times in my own life. My patient wished me luck with everything, and I thanked him for sharing and giving me a new perspective on my life.
People can see part of their own family history through every immigrant’s story, but if – and only if – they are willing to connect at a personal level. Most of the stories I have heard have similarities: a dream, difficult times, a welcoming place, connections, then finally a new home in America. These stories are brought to me by people who want to pay tribute to their parents and grandparents and their fight for better lives. These people want me to know they honor the legacy and will help out other newcomers in America as a result.
To me, that is all it is about: passing the legacy down, keeping the light vivid for those who have left everything behind, hoping for the best in America – like so many from all around the world have been doing for centuries. As we gather here today to reflect on the immigrant experience, I would ask each one of us to stand for the American dream and its promise. The dream does exist, even though it might not be achievable for all.
In Maine, there are people and organizations who work around the clock to make it possible for immigrants to rebuild their lives here – Midcoast New Mainers Group, Hope Acts, and Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, to name a few. We can each do something at the individual level, but it is also important to engage with these organizations and help build a strong network that is beneficial for all Mainers from all backgrounds. In a world where standing up for immigrant rights tends to promote division, instead of inclusion and acceptance, we should value the uniqueness of individuals and come together to build a stronger world.
As I always say to my patients when they are getting ready for discharge, “It was nice sharing your journey to healing.” I thank all of you here today for sharing the immigrants’ journey to rebuild their lives.
Twins Hope Food Catering is a new company based in the midcoast and owned by Rachel and Jeanne, twin sisters from Burkina Faso. They can be reached at: [email protected] or (207) 766-1183.