When Ilir Zherka got to this country as a two-year-old Albanian immigrant, he didn’t speak a word of English. “Documented or undocumented, it’s hard to live somewhere and feel left out,” Zherka said at Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder – which remembers the ancient Jewish story of liberation from slavery in Egypt while connecting it to modern social justice struggles – on Sunday night.
“Immigrants really provide a lifeblood to this country,” said Zherka, who’s now Executive Director of DC Vote, the leading advocacy organization for voting rights in the nation’s capital. Like many of the over 300 attendees at the 11th annual gathering, Zherka had a powerful personal story that vividly brought to life the seder’s theme of “Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights.” Though they came from all walks of life – from first generation immigrants to Native American descendants, and from young students to longtime DC activists, artists and workers – the seder participants found a common path Sunday night.
JUFJ tweaked the seder format to the theme “Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights,” reworking the four questions, the traditional songs, and even the ten plagues to focus on and discuss the plight of local immigrants. Instead of blood, frogs, and pestilence, for example, the attendees contemplated oppression in countries of origin, poor access to education, and unemployment. The haggadah, the traditional Passover text, was reinterpreted to present information about local immigration issues, discussion topics, and personal stories of immigrants’ experiences.
One personal story, by Lizbeth Mateo, a Mexican immigrant who was the first in her family to go to college, offered the advice, “You are safer if you are out because others will step up for you and fight for you if the need arises. Just remember that you are not alone. We are not alone.”
The crowd also heard from speakers Prerna Lal, Co-founder of dreamactivist.org, and from Sarahi Uribe, the National Campaign Coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network – both of whom have experienced great hardship due to the United States immigration system. Lal bravely fights for immigrants in the public eye, despite the fact that she herself is undocumented. The DREAM Act in her home state of California made it so she could go to state university while paying in-state tuition, and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s now working to get the DREAM Act signed into law in Maryland.
Uribe grew up in Los Angeles, and had her father taken away from her early in her life when he was deported to Mexico. She says the Secure Communities program is making communities less safe because immigrants are now in danger of being deported for even reporting a crime – it has “essentially made every police officer in the country a gateway to deportation,” she said. She has introduced a bill to the DC City Council that would stop this program in DC.
At the end of the seder, participants took action by writing letters to local officials calling for more immigrant-friendly policies. Metro Council President Jos Williams, himself a first-generation immigrant who faced discrimination as a child in Little Rock, thanked JUFJ “for reminding me that I am not free as long as there are others around me who are not free.”
If you are interested in getting involved with Jews United for Justice, or to learn more about their efforts to make our region more equal and just (including for immigrants!), please visit www.jufj.org or email community organizer Monica Kamen at firstname.lastname@example.org. As we enter the month of Nissan, the season of our liberation, may we all be inspired to work for freedom in our own lives!