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Berman: Jewish Americans, Syrian refugees forging ties

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

In a week when Donald Trump was winning notoriety for suggesting a national ban on Muslims entering the country, more than 125 mostly young, mostly Jewish Americans and a few Syrian refugees got together in pursuit of an improbable sense of connection.

They met at the Holocaust Memorial Center, a setting that vividly conjures historical memory of another refugee crisis when the world proved its indifference.

The connections aren’t obvious between these two groups, historically at odds; for decades, the Syrian government persecuted its once thriving Jewish community and fought three wars against Israel. And yet, people filled the chairs in the room, looking for ways to defuse conflict and find commonality.

The audience included Ismael Basha and his brother Dr. Yahya Basha, two of the investor group who purchased 120 lots and two vacant school buildings from Oakland County in Pontiac, hoping to build low-income housing that could benefit some Syrian refugees and revitalize a depressed part of Pontiac. But reaction from the public, and from the community, has been so hostile that the investor group is prepared to abandon their plan, they said. Never intended as a “Syrian Village” — the name Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson gave it — the developers say they feel their involvement has created a backlash. “We wanted to create economic development in Pontiac,” Basha said, with a sigh.

Shadi Martini, who emigrated from Syria four years ago and now works with refugee groups, walked to the lectern and identified himself, “Hello. ... I’m a Syrian, a Muslim, an American and a refugee.”

Martini also described himself as a man who had been taught to hate certain ethnic groups but, especially, Jews as a matter of growing up, who didn’t know that Jews even lived in Syria. When he left his homeland, with one suitcase, Martini was already on a quest to find light, to leave darkness behind.

To a mostly receptive audience, Martini, who now lives in West Bloomfield, spoke to a view of America the Good: a nation that embraces freedom and knowledge, where his former ignorance about history can be repaired with facts and statistics and a museum that directly addresses the Nazi Holocaust.. It was only in the United States, he said, that he realized that he wasn’t so different from the Jews he’d been taught to regard with mistrust and fear. In his own refugee work, he found himself allied with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — the same group that helped Jewish refugees from Europe.

Rabbi Dan Horwitz, who leads The Well, a group for young Jews who don’t have formal ties to a temple or synagogue, organized the evening as a way to encourage conversation and face-to-face understanding. “It’s a time when many people feel torn and confused about what to do. There are a lot of fears based on perceptions of radical Islamic violence. People are struggling with this.” Yet he saw the audience as a group of educated, younger people who view themselves as global citizens, connected by the internet in an instant, yet also wary of extremism and violence.

He spoke about “a need to act” that derives from Jewish tradition, but not from any political point of view. And a belief that “the wise person is the one who learns from every person.”

When the audience broke into small groups, reading poetry and traditional texts, only a few adopted harsh, anti-immigrant positions. But more were like Laura Hearshen, a West Bloomfield social worker, who described how “closing our doors can cause more hate, not less.” It was an alternative point of view, a humane one.