What the Book of Jonah can teach us about the global refugee crisis (COMMENTARY)

Print More
Afghan refugees arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast, on Oct. 8, 2015. Refugee and migrant arrivals to Greece this year will soon reach 400,000, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Dimitris Michalakis

Afghan refugees arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast, on Oct. 8, 2015. Refugee and migrant arrivals to Greece this year will soon reach 400,000, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Dimitris Michalakis

(RNS) My family recently took a multigenerational cruise to Alaska. The ship was a floating city, built for comfort: restaurants, spas, pools, bars, shopping and someone to clean your room every morning and turn down your sheets every night.

Traveling with my three little kids and 88-year-old father was stressful. Thankfully, there was an army of people and a doctor on board to make sure we left with only wonderful memories.

Anyone wanting to travel by sea just has to have the money. If, for example, you have $20,000 you can take a luxurious Mediterranean cruise on Crystal, Viking and even Disney.

Or, for the same $20,000 some people board their elderly parents and young children on an overcrowded life raft or rubber fishing dinghy, then hope and pray they make it to the European coast without drowning.

Yes, $20,000 is the amount people pay smugglers in their desperate attempts to escape war by taking to the sea.

These families leave on their harrowing journeys with faith, hope and very little food and water. And this horror expands far beyond the current Syrian refugee crisis.

This dystopian world is the reality for 60 million people on our planet today who have been displaced by war and persecution. For perspective, the number of displaced people is equal to roughly twice the population of California.

“Refugee” is a legal term for a person who is forced to flee due to persecution and war. With refugee status comes protection. The status was created by the United Nations in 1951 as a response to the Holocaust.

In the past year the United States accepted 69,933 refugees into our country in fiscal year 2015 — roughly the capacity of a professional football stadium.

But the vast majority of these desperate people are not called refugees. They are simply migrants. This linguistic sleight of hand would make us believe that these people are risking their lives and the lives of their young children for upward mobility. It diminishes the humanitarian crisis we are witnessing.

Calling them migrants absolves us of a responsibility to do more.

The Book of Jonah gives us some insight into the global tragedy that is unfolding before us. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh — today Mosul, Iraq — to help the community avoid destruction. Instead, Jonah jumps on a boat and heads the opposite direction to Tarshish, which is somewhere in today’s Europe.

We all know the feeling of wanting to run away when things get challenging. We want to turn the other way, cross the street, change lanes — anything to avoid human contact.

While Jonah is running away and the storm is raging, Jonah goes below deck and falls asleep. He is not interested in helping the people of Nineveh, nor is he interested in helping the other people on the boat. In this confined space, where it would seem impossible to ignore his shipmates’ suffering, Jonah falls asleep.

And that is exactly what we do.

We in the U.S. are like Jonah. We act as if we have the luxury not to think about these 60 million people if it gets too painful or inconvenient. We can switch off the news; close the newspaper; pretend they don’t exist.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a 122-year-old agency that delivers essential human services.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a 123-year-old agency that delivers essential human services.

I have a recurring nightmare. I am on a small lifeboat, pulling people out of the water. But there are far more people in the water than can fit on my small boat, and it is dark and the water is cold.

Then, I wake up and go to work with our refugee resettlement team and our social workers and our volunteers. And, we start pulling one more person out of the water.

It is easy to keep things intellectual, and I admit, I find myself doing this all the time. But that is not sufficient. We need to continue to ask ourselves, what suffering are we actually awake to — and, what exactly are we willing to do about it? There are just too many people in the water — fathers, mothers, and children. And they are hovering between life and death.

We cannot remember those who died during the Holocaust, and then conveniently forget those who are seeking refuge today. We must not go back to sleep.

(Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the CEO of Jewish Family Service, a 123-year-old nonprofit organization that helps vulnerable individuals and families in the Puget Sound region achieve well-being, health and stability.)

YS/AMB END BERKOVITZ