The month of November 2021 has been one of the quickest of my life. Now that I’m finally in a routine here, I was able to visit two new cities: Lisbon and London. Each was a unique experience, so I wrote a journal entry after each trip to remember the details. (more…)
My second month abroad was even more meaningful than my first. Not only did I learn more about Israel and Judaism in the classroom, but I also continued to explore the Old City by foot. In my first blog, I wrote about seeing the Dome of the Rock (or Temple Mount) from afar. Recently, I also had the opportunity to explore it up close during the one hour of the day that my program was permitted.
I spent the last week of November in Poland. It was cold and gray, and the towns we visited were bleak. However, I enjoyed the food, which helped make up for the fact that it was my first Thanksgiving away from my family. I missed all of the traditional foods we eat each year, especially my grandma’s pecan pie. I also missed watching football with my dad and brother.
In Poland, I visited many of the concentration camps from the Holocaust, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. I also saw the Warsaw Ghetto.
Although I had previously studied and knew the historical significance of these sites, I was overwhelmed when I saw them in person. The population per square kilometer in Manhattan is almost 28,000. In the Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were forced to live, there were 125,000 Jews per square kilometer. They comprised nearly 30% of Warsaw’s population but occupied only 2.4% of its area.
Leaving Poland, I was consumed by one thought: how truly lucky and privileged I am to be alive and to have been born in the United States.
During the last few days in Poland, I learned about the Omicron variant to Covid. I also learned that if we didn’t make it back to Israel by midnight on November 28 we would be required to quarantine for three more days. Having already quarantined for a full week in September, I was really hopeful that my plane would be on time. As luck would have it, our wheels touched down 126 minutes after the deadline so we were immediately tested and hurried to our quarantine locations. I am looking forward to my final month in Jerusalem once quarantine ends.
You would think that plunging directly into my hometown of almost nineteen years would yield routine results—invariable observations I would be wont to have. Yet, cradled between familiar mountains and blanketed by the same dusty borderland sky, my everyday community sprung opportunities ready to impart me with new knowledge. As my gap year commenced, my newfound role as an intern for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center delivered a transformative culture shock a few short miles away from the border along which I had been raised.
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (“Las Americas,” for short), prides itself on its unique hub of community volunteers, interns, paralegals, and attorneys, all working to provide relief and pro bono legal aid to migrants from across the globe. Interning for the Detained Team at Las Americas, I assumed differing roles to contribute, however slightly or laboriously, to the mission of the organization, from ordering files to interviewing detainees about their often-harrowing cases for asylum.
Even just a few months into my work, I witnessed significant diversity and similarities across cases. Clients shared insight into the heart-wrenching realities of their home countries: some fled incarceration under an unjust government, unmitigated destitution, religious persecution, or as victims caught in the crossfire of corrupt systems and violent groups. Some immediately acquiesced to substandard conditions and discrimination at detention centers in the hopes of prompt release, while others petitioned officials for basic respect. Some arrived already suffering physical and/or mental trauma, escaping brutality and degradation to the most primitive conditions imaginable. At times my stomach would churn upon hearing the clients’ ages, some even younger than me.
Across backgrounds, every client bore ideals valued by the US to this same country that attempted to turn them away. While some advocated for their freedoms and inalienable rights, others promoted love, faith, assiduity, forgiveness, and courtesy, even when aware of how the US misconstrued them as wrongdoers or criminals.
However, all of the clients—regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or brevity—spoke with the same humble dignity and respect, their tone fatigued, but never defeated. Engaging in such poignant conversations with clients resulted in constant emotional growth, as I strived to empathize with the detainees and offer the solace lacking in the immigration system. Despite the complexity of such an unforgiving system, the people I spoke with maintained hope, braving every undeserved difficulty to seek a better life.
Often before ending their interviews with a blessing for the workers at Las Americas, the clients I spoke with disclosed pieces of wisdom I carry with me:
- “Venimos a sembrar semilla Buena a este país” (We have come to plant a virtuous seed in this country)
- “Love recognizes no religion or color”
- “En ninguna carcel, ni de oro, alguien se va a sentir bien” (In no prison, not even one of gold, will someone feel good)
- “La vida es bonita, nadamás es saberla vivir. Por uno no viene para molestar” (Life is beautiful, if only you know how to live it. That is why one does not come to this country just to be a bother.)
As I prepare to spend Christmas with my family knowing the clients I spoke with may not obtain the same opportunity, I think of the lessons working at Las Americas has instilled in me thus far, remembering to hold steadfast to faith and hope and look forward, but also sideways to our fellow neighbors. I now move forward with the intent of treating everyone benevolently and finding ways to alter the immigration system for the better, seeking the noble work hidden within the niches of my community.