fb-pixel Skip to main content
Opinion | Rachelle G. Cohen

Befriending the stranger

Immigrants having lunch at Ellis Island just before the First World War. Ellis Island received as many as 790,000 immigrants at this time.Associated Press/Wide World

As the snow melts and the days grow longer, this is — or should be — the season of welcoming the stranger.

For millennia, Jews around the world have marked the exodus from Egypt at Passover Seders — a celebration of that long journey from slavery to freedom. But even more so, a time to recall that equally ancient admonition: “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It’s not as easy these days to “befriend the stranger” — not when executive orders are being thrashed out in federal courts, not when immigrants are afraid to show up for routine status hearings lest they be summarily detained, and not when the promise of freedom from oppression is ever more elusive.


There was a time, not so long ago, when this nation was a more welcoming place.

It was January 2001 when our country opened its doors to some 3,800 of the so-called Lost Boys of South Sudan. Children when they left their war-torn villages, they trekked for hundreds of miles, they fought for their lives, and many were forced into being child soldiers. Thousands died along the way.

The lucky ones made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. It was there that then-Globe reporter Ellen Barry picked up their story and chronicled the journey of a dozen of these now not-so-lost boys to their new home in New England.

One of them, now appropriately called Moses, told the story of his journey at this year’s AJC Diplomats Seder, and hundreds rose to applaud his courage and to welcome this former stranger.

But today there are too few happy endings, too few welcomes.

And so, around my Seder table this year, we will remember absent friends, friends whose journeys are not yet complete, those I hold in my heart but whose lives remain in limbo and often in turmoil — victims not just of violence and injustice in their home countries, but also of indifference here.


There is and will always be a place for Sukru, once a high-ranking judge in Turkey, now studying here for his PhD under a work permit and presumably on the road to asylum. But the pain of uncertainty is constant. Even the possibility that this kind and gentle man who risked everything to escape ahead of a Turkish arrest warrant would not in the end be welcomed here is abhorrent.

His wife and children — whereabouts unknown — are perhaps, with some luck, strangers in some other strange land enduring the hardship of separation.

And there is Mev, another Turkish judge who became a friend when he came to Boston with his family to study English — before he was ordered home and his world was turned upside down by an increasingly autocratic Turkish president.

After months in a refugee camp in Germany, Mev and his family have a real home — or at least a real address — and Mev has at last the promise of a job in a country that has “befriended the stranger” more generously than our own.

No, we cannot welcome them all. That debate is not new. My own father was fortunate enough to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe just as America was experiencing an earlier wave of anti-immigrant legislation in the early part of the 1900s. He was among the lucky ones.


But we can honor that heritage and that tradition by doing what we can.

The Passover Seder traditionally ends with the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” — an expression not of a literal reunion but of hope for a better life and for freedom. This year, many families will end the Seder with a prayer for “an end to exile” for so many of those who remain strangers in strange lands and “for ultimate redemption, for peace and perfection for the entire world.”

A tall order indeed — but one which can begin in a single heart.

Rachelle G. Cohen, former editorial page editor of the Boston Herald, is a consultant to government agencies and NGOs on international judicial-press relations.