The Rabbi and the Refugee

Two people with very different backgrounds but who have directly been impacted by hate and division came together to build this unique organization that builds bridges between: a) refugee and citizen, b) aggressor and survivor and c) people and policy. This is our story. 

          Rabbi Joshua Lesser

As a Jewish gay man, I have understood only too well the many ways that hate creates danger and breaks down societies. In Atlanta, I have built my rabbinate on building bridges to ensure that symbols of hate are not used to compromise the health and welfare of all Georgians. Now, it is quite heartbreaking for me to see Jews fleeing once again, under the specter of war, from Ukraine, where my personal Jewish ancestors called home. 

Recently, I watched Ukraine’s only female rabbi lead Shabbat services as she was fleeing her own home; a testament to her resiliency and the resiliency of so many who have faced wars. Like so many, I am quite tuned into the brutal and insidious nature of this particular war. Yet, my consciousness has been growing that this is not unique, war is often particularly malicious and there are attacks on cultural, ethnic, and religious groups all around the world. Most of which are not following the “humanitarian” rules of war. Wars are also not fought in a vacuum. It is clear that non-democratic systems create aggressors. 

We are also seeing the vast number of refugees and displaced people seeking refuge. While it is heartening to see countries open their borders, I am aware of how many other refugee experiences do not include such a concerted effort even in wartime. For me, this war must expand my awareness of all wars around the world and violence within the U.S. Moreover, I am understanding how important Bridges Faith Initiative is because it connects the rights of civilian security with asylee and refugee policy.


       Ronnate Asirwatham

I have known war for far too long. For the first 30 of my life I lived in Sri Lanka, a country torn by a civil war that was fought on ethno-racial lines. When I hear of the hospitals being bombed and mass graves being found in Ukraine, it takes me back to the April of 2009, when my morning routine was to find out if my friends and family had survived the night.  UN experts said war crimes, crimes against humanity and mass atrocities were committed in Sri Lanka. I know all too well how unjust systems and racial hatred leads to war and then war creates refugees. It is to break this cycle that we started this organization. 

In 2009, my husband a journalist was imprisoned and tortured in Sri Lanka, and I had to flee because the Sri Lanka government was attacking me for speaking out against his unjust imprisonment and because I was also advocating for peace. I fled and claimed asylum and then advocated for his release in the U.S. 

I know first-hand how difficult and terrifying the asylum process is, and yet I know I was one of the lucky ones who spoke English and had a lawyer. And I have dedicated my life to make it easier for asylum seekers to be able to access the asylum process as well as resources, no matter what language they speak. 

Being a refugee in adulthood is very difficult. Suddenly all of the life and experience you had before is not counted in the U.S. because you are only seen as a “refugee” not as a whole person seeking refuge. I learned how the U.S. Congress works, how advocacy works and how immigration laws are supposed to work in a very short space of time. Rabbi Joshua gave me the opportunity and platform to raise my voice and join with others to work for a more peaceful world and to end hate.