OPINION: We have been refugees – and now it’s our turn to give back

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

OPINION: We have been refugees – and now it’s our turn to give back

Ilan Cohn, director of HIAS Europe, looks ahead to World Refugee Day and reflects on the Jewish community's obligation to support those less fortunate

Chad/ Darfuri Refugees / A HIAS community mobilizer meets with Amneh Yakum Abbakah, 40, who learned to make baskets through HIAS activities and now runs her own shop with the income she generated from selling them. /  November 6, 2013 / Photo by Glenna Gordon
Chad/ Darfuri Refugees / A HIAS community mobilizer meets with Amneh Yakum Abbakah, 40, who learned to make baskets through HIAS activities and now runs her own shop with the income she generated from selling them. / November 6, 2013 / Photo by Glenna Gordon

Throughout history, Jews have been refugees, forced to flee their home countries to escape persecution. As we observe World Refugee Day on June 20, nearly all Jews around the world are fortunate to live in safety and enjoy their own state. It is our turn to give back and support the needy.

My organization HIAS, founded over a century ago in New York, supported over 4 million European Jews to escape persecution and operated in Austria and Greece for years, yet we are newcomers to Europe’s Jewish scene.  My own Brussels-based office was established only in 2019 and oversees humanitarian programming in 13 countries from Columbia to Ukraine, from Chad to Israel.

We’re also partnering with Europe’s Jewish communities, whom I invite to join in our work and express solidarity with refugees. This can be by supporting overseas humanitarian operations of a Jewish relief organization like HIAS, or through engagement with refugees in our own communities. Community sponsorship is one such option.

Community sponsorship enables us to welcome a refugee family into our local community and support them as they rebuild their lives. In the United States and Canada, and to a lesser extent also in the UK (through JCORE and affiliated congregations), numerous Jewish communities and congregations are involved in this way. Indeed, local Jewish social services throughout the U.S. partner with HIAS to help assist and integrate resettled refugees in their communities. In Europe, relatively few Jewish communities have been involved in such efforts.

Charlotte, North Carolina A cultural orientation class for newly arrived refugees at CRRA’s office in Charlotte, NC. November 4, 2016.
The class is led by Gabriella, a former client who now works for CRRA. Saif, the Arabic translator, is also a former client.

In principle, anyone can get involved in community sponsorship – NGOs, synagogues, youth movements, student unions, professional associations or simply a group of friends or neighbours with a common interest. In practice, though, we often see local faith communities taking the lead in accompanying refugees from the day they set foot in their new homes and helping them flourish in schools, jobs, etc. Sponsors may introduce refugees to their friends, families and neighbours, have them join Shabbat dinners, outdoor trips, or volunteering in local associations.


The need is pressing. In 2020, a record-breaking 80 million plus people were affected by forced displacement with only a tiny fraction being able to resettle. Europe and other countries in a position to help have shut most of their doors as a result of the pandemic, turning a simmering refugee crisis into a full-fledged humanitarian disaster.

The pandemic has posed particularly acute dangers to displaced persons.  More than 70 percent of those receiving aid from HIAS were no longer able to meet their basic needs for food, compared to 15 percent before the outbreak. In response, HIAS and others have expanded cash assistance. In many countries, such assistance proved a lifeline. In Ecuador, for example we have been partnering with local supermarkets to help asylum seekers buy food with credit.

Many of us are currently focused on the impact of the pandemic on members of our own community, and our resources are limited. Furthermore, some of us fear that refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority countries, arrive to our communities with anti-Semitic attitudes.

Showing Jewish empathy and facilitating refugees’ local integration, including through participation in community sponsorship programs, is surely the best strategy to overcome prejudice and mutual mistrust and promote integration. Successful integration into our societies depends on how we welcome refugees so that they can become productive, constructive citizens, and we can support them in this process. The examples of Jewish communities around the world already involved in such programming shows that we can make a real difference in the lives of refugees, also within our own communities.

  • Ilan Cohn is based in Brussels and is the Director of HIAS Europe. For the past two decades he worked on migration at the international level through a number of intergovernmental organizations, as well as through JDC and the Center for International Migration and Integration in Israel.
Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: