Refugees, fleeing war, find respite among Valley’s welcoming families

The Kaders of Tempe welcomed a Syrian refugee family to their home to share a holiday feast. (Wrangler News photo by Alex J. Walker)
The Kaders of Tempe welcomed a Syrian refugee family to their home to share a holiday feast. (Wrangler News photo by Alex J. Walker)

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By Joyce Coronel

The holidays are the time of the year when families gather to celebrate and hold each other close, sharing laughter, love and a home-cooked meal.

Not everyone is so fortunate. For refugees arriving from war-shattered Syria, the season of joy may prove a lonely interlude in a foreign land.

Enter Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, a Jewish community organization. Together with Arizona Jews for Justice, Rabbi Yanklowitz, joined by Sarah Kader and her family, welcomed two Muslim families from Syria for the start of the holiday season, Thanksgiving.

Kader, her husband and their new baby, along with members of their extended families, hosted a Syrian family that included a mother and father with five young sons.

“We should not fear them, but embrace them and welcome them into our home and say, ‘You’re here and you’re safe. This country is a land of promise and so we want you to feel welcome and be with us to celebrate this holiday with us.’”

Kader sees the outreach through the lens of family history. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and her father, born in Germany, was a refugee who arrived in the U.S. following WWII.

“They came to this country after experiencing hell on earth. Without America embracing them, who knows what would have happened? For my family, it’s very significant to embrace the immigrant and refugee and not shun them,” Kader said.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, who also welcomed a family of seven Syrian refugees for Thanksgiving, echoed those sentiments. “Our feeling is that America should be welcoming to refugees and those that have arrived should be embraced and integrated into American culture,” he said.

“My sense is that their healthy integration into American society will depend more on us than on them.”

Between the linguistic, cultural and culinary divide—in the days leading up to the intercultural feast—Wrangler News wondered how local Jewish families would bridge the gap with the Middle Eastern, Muslim refugees. Would they be able to communicate? What about the turkey? And who
would say the blessing?

“We have a Syrian leader who is coming and who will translate at our home,” Yanklowitz said days prior to the event. At the Kaders’ place, one of the older refugee children speaks English and will translate, he added.

“It may sound cliché, but I think the language of love and hope and light is what we are hoping to communicate,” Kader said. “We hope to welcome them with not just our words, but with our actions and with hugs and food and a warmth we hope they will feel regardless of whether they can actually understand us. I think it will be just fine.”

As for the turkey discussion, well, there wouldn’t be one. The family follows a very specific dietary regimen, which precludes the consumption of poultry, Kader said.

“But apart from that, we do a traditional Thanksgiving meal, (with) traditional sides of stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and all that.”

Meanwhile, Yanklowitz is vegan. He’s serving sushi and spaghetti to his guests.

And the blessing of the meal? “I will offer the blessing in our home as I always do as a traditional Jew, and I’ll also welcome them to make whatever blessing would be most appropriate for them,” he said.

Both Yanklowitz and Kader said their faith guides their vision of hospitality.

“As Jews, it’s really a significant thing to do because the Jewish story is not just related to the Holocaust: Our whole history of thousands of years is a story of being a stranger in a strange land and wanting to feel like we have a home someplace,” Kader said.

“The Bible is very clear that if you are a religious person, most fundamental is to be compassionate to those who are vulnerable, and in particular to the stranger,” Yanklowitz said.

“We are trying make positive change here in Arizona,” Kader said, adding that she hopes others will join Arizona Jews for Justice.

What about those who worry that refugees might harbor terrorist sympathies in this era of headlinegrabbing, gut-wrenching terror attacks?

“America has a very thorough vetting process, both in terms of monitoring them and continuing to ensure their security around them.

“So I actually feel they are some of the most-safe people to interact with in the country,” Yanklowitz said.

Joyce Coronel
Joyce Coronel has been interviewing and writing stories since she was 12, and she’s got the scrapbooks to prove it. The mother of five grown sons and native of Arizona is passionate about local news and has been involved in media since 2002, coming aboard at Wrangler News in 2015. Joyce believes strongly that newspapers are a lifeline to an informed public and a means by which neighbors can build a sense of community—vitally important in today’s complex world.

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