Old, new immigrants join at JCA Freedom Seder

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Steven Foldes and Washington Yonly sat two tables away from each other at the JCA’s seventh annual Freedom Seder on March 22. One is an old immigrant, the other a new immigrant. One came by ship from Europe, and another flew into the US from Africa. Different stories. Both Minnesotans.

“As we sailed into the harbor,” recalled Foldes, “my parents and I went onto the deck to watch the Statue of Liberty.” Though Foldes was only seven when his family arrived at Ellis Island, his memories remain vivid. His family was escaping the Nazis, who had killed most of his extended family. His parents, he said, were very bitter because of the senseless loss of lives. They loved and missed Hungary. His parents sent care packages and money to Hungary to support those family members and friends who were never able to escape.

It has been more than 50 years since Foldes and his family settled in the US, and yet the relationship with America and new immigrants has not changed much.

“The US has had a very ambivalent relationship with immigrants,” Foldes said, referring to different immigration policies over several decades that either welcomed or shut out immigrants. Of anti-immigration Americans, Foldes says that many of them are not only wary of strangers, but are also worried that “immigrants will take jobs.”

As a Jewish immigrant, Foldes knows only too well the difficulties of settling into a new country. “We have a Jewish saying: ‘We need to be welcoming to strangers because we were once strangers in Egypt,'” he explained. Most Jews came to the United States during the era of open immigration policies and large waves of immigrants, from 1880 to 1920.

With this in mind, he decided to work with Jewish Community Action on immigration issues, particularly those affecting the Latino population. Through JCA, Foldes helped pass “separation ordinances” in St. Paul and Minneapolis. These ordinances restrict local authorities from investigating the immigration status of people not charged with serious crimes. For example, police are not to make inquiries on the immigration status of traffic offenders or of crime victims.

As he pondered the complexity of the immigration problems in the United States, Foldes sighed. “The immigration policy needs to be changed,” he said, urging “a path to legal status for undocumented workers.” Like several others interested in immigration rights, Foldes calls for immigration policies that maintain the integrity of undocumented workers. He cites the economic problems in Latin America as intricately tied with immigration issues in the U.S.

Yonly is also a political refugee today.

“I did not consider myself a refugee when I first came to the U.S.,” he said. “I still thought that the Liberian war would cease.”

Yonly was a young man working at a broadcasting radio station when he got a scholarship to study Rural Development at a university in Buea, Cameroon. The first Liberian civil war broke out in 1989, but Yonly did not feel that the war would be a threatening.

“I was eager to use my education to work on rural development issues in Liberia,” he said. But then the war intensified, and Yonly began to receive news about friends and families who had been killed.

For little pay, just enough for food, Yonly took a short training course and began working at the Liberian embassy in Cameroon. It was while here, just a year before the onset of the second civil war in 1999 that Yonly came to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa. His nephews who had already moved to Minnesota agreed to host him. His life, and that of many of his family members were in danger, so he could not return home.

As the war wore on, it became evident to Yonly that he was a refugee. He has done what many immigrants do when they come to the U.S.: work hard. Like Foldes’s parents, Yonly sends money to Liberia to support his family. He looks forward to a strengthened Liberia now that the war is over. Liberia has one of the worst unemployment rates in the world — understandably, as the country is re-building its most basic infrastructure.

“I would like to travel back and forth to Liberia to begin to establish a home back there,” Yonly said, hastening to add that, ” I can only be helpful to my country if I have an income.”

And so these two immigrants, with very different stories, found themselves in Minnesota. On March 22, Foldes and Yonly, and others gathered at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul to celebrate the rights of immigrants at a Seder, a Jewish celebration of the Passover and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. JCA’s celebration this year highlighted campaigns of the organization and its allies for an end to immigration raids and for immigration reform; to improve working conditions; for better treatment of animals, environmental impact, and ethical business practices in kosher food production; and a call for permanent residence for Liberians and other immigrant communities.

Nekessa Opoti (nekessa@kenyaimagine.com) is a freelance writer and the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and editor of Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper.