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Tikkun olam: Roberta Elliott

Roberta Elliott sorts shoes donated for refugees in Vienna in October 2015.

Roberta Elliott’s exploration of what it means to be a refugee started when she had her bat mitzvah at the age of 60. But it really started long before that. She helps refugees because she grew up with refugees in her own family. For many years she has been involved in helping refugees and other migrants in Tucson, New Jersey and across the world.

“Being Jewish compels me to help refugees because all Jews, from Abraham on, started as refugees,” says Elliott. “At my New Jersey synagogue I had an adult bat mitzvah and my Torah portion (Chayei Sarah) was about Rivka, who showed kindness to strangers by giving water to Abraham’s servant and his camels.”

Elliott’s compassion for the stranger also extends from her father’s family’s escape from the Nazi regime in Europe during World War II. Family members had lived in Vienna for almost 100 years, but in 1938 her father, Franz Engel (later Francis Elliott), then 29, learned he was on the SS deportation list.

“My father was a remarkable man,” says Elliott. “He engineered the family’s escape from Vienna and they went to Italy, then Switzerland then to France. My grandmother, my father and my father’s sister got out of France by crossing over the Pyrenees mountains.”

Her father worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Lisbon, Portugal. The organization helped her father and his family emigrate to the United States, and they arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Dec. 7, 1941 — the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Over the past two decades, Elliott has made several trips to Europe retracing her family’s escape route. “I am an only child and I had a special relationship with my father, so I traced his family’s steps through Europe to try to put myself in his place.”

Elliott retired four years ago after a career working for Jewish publications and organizations. She worked for HIAS, the same organization that helped her family come to America. Founded in 1881, HIAS now helps to resettle refugees of all faiths and ethnicities. From 1989-1993, at the height of Russian immigration to the United States, she was the HIAS director of public affairs, and from 2008-2013 she served as the vice president of media and communications. She lived in Israel for nearly five years, working as a freelance journalist, and after returning to the United States in 1985 worked for The New York Jewish Week. She also served as the national public affairs director for Hadassah for 11 years.

These days Elliott and her husband, Charles Wantman, divide their year between Tucson and New Jersey. They are members of M’kor Hayim in Tucson and Bnai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey. Elliott serves on the advisory board of the Arizona Jewish Post and is a former co-chair of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey.

In what Elliott describes as a “mission of mercy,” she volunteers to help refugees and to bring their plight to the public’s attention. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Elliott explains that the basic refugee story is that they need to leave in a hurry, leave under the cover of night to escape and can only take one or two suitcases with them. They are trying to preserve their lives. They want safety and a good place to raise a family.

“It seems that a lot of people in the Western world are not that interested in refugees,” she says. “The refugee is invisible. The only time they are not invisible is when they are objects of contempt. Wherever they are, the refugees are ‘other,’ they are the strangers.

“I have seen their struggle and each person has her own story. They need to feel they can be in charge of their lives, but they are at the mercy of governments and agencies that don’t care about them. They deserve self-determination and dignity.”

Her first “real close up and personal experience” with refugees came in 1988 when she went to Vienna on assignment for The New York Jewish Week. She followed the path of refugees from the Soviet Union, taking a train with them from Vienna to Rome. They were locked inside the train overnight. She stayed in Rome for two weeks interviewing the refugees.

Since that experience Elliott has been involved in many efforts to help refugees. In New Jersey she leads a team of volunteers who are responsible for the well-being of a newly arrived refugee family from Syria. She also started a visitation program for refugees at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.

In Tucson she has volunteered with the Tucson Samaritans, which is dedicated to saving the lives of migrants traveling through the Arizona desert. Nearly 3,000 deaths have been documented by the U. S. Border Patrol for the Tucson and Yuma sectors from 1998 through 2016. The Samaritans provide food, water, and emergency medical assistance.

Elliott currently volunteers with the Iskashitaa Refugee Network. This organization brings together members of the community and refugees who get to know each other through working to harvest fruits and vegetables to help needy families meet their nutritional needs.

“When the Syrian [refugee] crisis erupted in the fall of 2015, I decided to go see what was happening,” says Elliott. In October 2015 she went to Vienna because it was a transportation hub for refugees. At two train stations she helped to provide food to the new arrivals.

“It was good to work with an amazing group of volunteers,” she says. “I wish my father could have seen this compassion — it wasn’t this way in 1938.”

Elliott has also made two trips to Greece, which has been flooded by tens of thousands of refugees, mainly from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. In 2016, she witnessed the dire conditions in one refugee camp where 800 people were living in 150 tents. She says there was no running water and, while the army delivered food twice a day, it often spoiled in the 110-degree heat. People had to contend with scorpions, poisonous snakes, and mosquito infestations. This year she went to Athens and discovered that an organization called “Tent to Home” is helping people move out of the tent camps and into apartments.

“We kept people company and tried to make them feel human,” says Elliott. “These people have left everything they’ve known behind.”

Elliott’s article, “In Vienna with Syrian Refugees” (Lilith, Winter 2015-16), won a Simon Rockower first place award for excellence in social justice reporting. Her article “Easing a Brutal Journey for Migrants in Arizona,” which appeared with articles by three other authors in a section called “Crossing Borders” (Hadassah Magazine, 2016 April/May) also won a Simon Rockower first place award for excellence. The awards are given by the American Jewish Press Association. She also had photographs in an exhibit called “X is for Xenophobia” at the Steinfeld Warehouse in Tucson and the Arizona Jewish Post published her article, “In Vienna, bearing witness on the frontlines of Europe’s refugee crisis” on Nov. 20, 2015.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.