Passover inspires American family to help African refugee – via Ottawa project
What does the story of Passover mean to us in 2018? How do we “relive” our experience as slaves in Egypt and our exodus? How can we make it meaningful now? In particular, how do we welcome the stranger in our midst while remembering that, as former slaves, there is no fundamental difference between “us” and “them?”
The Finkelmans of Oakland, California, were asking themselves such questions at their seder last year.
“In our family, the themes of the Holocaust and how you treat strangers are pretty common at Passover,” said Chaim Finkelman, who was with his family in Southfield, Michigan, for Passover.
They discussed how their situation might have parallels with the challenge that faced righteous gentiles during the Holocaust: do we sit back and do nothing when there are people in the world who desperately need our help? The Finkelmans mused about how they would like to support a refugee family, but couldn’t because of current U.S. policy.
“The stance (U.S. president Donald) Trump is taking on refugees is a horror and a travesty,” Chaim said.
But the Finkelmans persevered. Chaim, aware of Canada’s more welcoming refugee policy, emailed the American Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Jewish Immigrant Aid Service in Canada (JIAS). When Andrea Gardner, Assistant Executive Director at Jewish Family Services of Ottawa (JFS), called Chaim back, she told him about the Poplar Project.
The Poplar Project was launched in 2015 when my daughter Rachel and a group of her 30-something friends decided to sponsor a refugee. I was honoured to be invited to join them. With the support of JFS and generous contributions from friends and family, we raised $15,000. Combined with financial support from the Canadian government, there was enough to take the next step.
In the summer of 2016, we were matched with Martharlen Gaye, a Liberian refugee who had been living in Ivory Coast for more than 20 years. When she arrived in Ottawa a couple of months later, she left behind her life and family: an elderly mother and two sons, aged 12 and 17, who had gone missing five years earlier during times of war.
Soon after arriving, Martharlen, who is now 43, joined a choir and started going to school. She greeted every challenge with a bright, courageous smile. She never gave up hope of reuniting with her children and of creating a better life for them in Canada.
Four months later, Martharlen received a phone call that changed everything. Her older son had arrived at her mother’s doorstep. He and his brother were safe. We were ecstatic – Martharlen’s prayers had been answered. Today, the boys are with their grandmother in Ivory Coast.
No words can describe how moved the Ottawa Poplar members were last spring to learn of the conversation at the Finkelman Passover table and their efforts to support a refugee family. We were touched to hear that they were undaunted by the impossibility of helping a refugee family in the U.S. and were looking to Canada as a place to lend a hand. We were thrilled when they contacted Jewish Family Services and were matched with us.
With financial support from our Canadian donors and the Finkelmans, the Poplar Project has now applied to bring the boys to Canada. We know there will be many challenges ahead for this family that has experienced violence, war, separation and hunger. But Martharlen is strong and resilient. Once her basic skills are stronger, she hopes to train as a personal support worker to support her family. The Poplar Project, bolstered by our supporters, JFS and our American friends, will be with them in every way possible.
This Passover, I urge you and your family to consider a way to reach out to “strangers,” both within and across our borders. To find out more about the Poplar Project and Martharlen, see thepoplarproject.wordpress.com and a November story in the Ottawa Citizen: https://tinyurl.com/y8watt38.
You can also make a donation through JFS to help bring Martharlen’s sons to Ottawa at