By Ronit Zemel
For the first 18 years of my life, at my parents’ Passover seder, I would recount the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I recited the four questions, pointed to objects on the seder plate, and dropped grape juice on my plate for the ten plagues. As the Haggadah said, I would try to put myself in the shoes of the Israelites, and consider myself as if I had come forth from Egypt—but honestly, I was mostly thinking of the matzah ball soup and brisket to come when we finally made it to Shulchan Orech.
And then, between my 18th and 19th year of celebrating Passover, I stumbled into a volunteer opportunity during a gap year I spent in Israel. Every day, I met people who themselves had wandered through Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, walked through the Sinai desert, and come to the “Promised Land.” The journey of these people, though, wasn’t filled with manna, nor was the land to which they came flowing with milk and honey. It was a journey of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers. When I heard their stories, I first came to understand the wisdom that Passover lays bare: we must think of ourselves as coming out of Egypt, not only to remember that the Jewish people have fled persecution time and time again, but also because at every time and in every generation, there are others who cannot yet celebrate their freedom because they are in the midst of their own refugee story.
This Passover season, as I prepare my seder plate, dust off Elijah’s cup, and browse my local grocery stores for matzah and macaroons, I will be thinking of the refugees I met who had been airlifted out of Kabul during the fall of Afghanistan. Many came to the United States with just the shoes on their feet and the clothes on their back. I met these Afghan evacuees at National Guard Base Fort Pickett, as part of my work for HIAS. As I helped collect documents and information to begin the resettlement process, I had the honor of hearing these people’s stories, the first-hand accounts of fleeing their homeland to seek refuge in a strange land.
Many had worked in the American Embassy in Kabul; some had worked to build Afghan civil society. I heard the stories of soldiers from the Khost region, the stories of dentists, teachers, lawyers, students, technicians, airport employees. The stories of those who would rather go back to Afghanistan so they can reunite with their loved ones they had to leave behind, and the stories of those so excited to be here in the United States to begin their lives anew. The stories of those who spoke perfect English, and the stories of those who came from a place without written language and last names.
When I sit at my Passover Seder this year surrounded in person by family and friends, I will be thinking of these stories, and the stories of the rest of the 84 million people currently experiencing forced displacement around the world. I will be praying that today’s refugees and asylum seekers will fulfill their dreams of building a new life in safety and in freedom.
Ronit Zemel is the Culture and Communications Manager at HIAS, a humanitarian organization helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. She and her husband Ethan Porter have been Micah members since 2018.