Who is a refugee and therefore who am I?

Maya Wahrman ’16, current PP55 Fellow at Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life

Current Princeton Project 55 Fellow, Maya Wahrman ’16,  was a History major with certificates in Creative Writing (in poetry) and the Program in Near Eastern Studies. Her future career interests lie in community development, refugee issues, the role of religion in peacemaking, and education and health rights and access on a grassroots level. On campus Maya was a music co-director of Umqombothi African a Capella, a Residential College Adviser, a student-leader at the Center for Jewish Life and for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, and a volunteer teacher in prisons and nursery schools. Here, she shares about the major task she undertook after started her PP55 Fellowship at Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life.

Who is a refugee and therefore who am I? This is a question I have been asking myself since beginning my position at Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life (ORL) in August. My major task in my fellowship until now has been organizing our second conference in the Poverty and Peacemaking series, Seeking Refuge: Faith-Based Approaches to Forced Migration. In my first few months, I spoke with hundreds of professionals and volunteers from agencies and religious congregations, learning about their approach to refugee work and how our interfaith conference might be useful to them. As I heard people discuss the legal and political statuses affecting refugees in our turbulent times, as well as how this work has shaped their own lives, that question emerged.

That question became the title of the opening plenary panel of our two-day conference. I heard five eloquent experts reflect on this question that has occupied me all year. (You can watch the recording of this session here.)

“We are all pilgrims in life,” reflected Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, a formerly undocumented Princeton professor, and for a moment amidst the stress of running the conference, I was reminded why I do this work.

Through my position at the ORL I wanted to help those crossing borders for fear of danger and persecution. By working in a thoughtful office within a prestigious institution, I was able to raise awareness on this critical issue. I had great fortune that my office believes in using our rich resources to host a diverse forum and cultivate relationships locally and nationally. Beyond my professional role, I became friends with refugees, undocumented persons, asylum seekers, and other good-hearted volunteers responding in turn to the growing crises.

I did not realize at the outset how deeply this work would transform me. From a theological perspective, we at the ORL believe that all who seek refuge are refugees, regardless of the status or rhetoric assigned to them in the material and political realms. From a religious perspective (and we define “religious” very broadly), we are not only mandated to love the stranger but to build community with all our neighbors. In learning about the countless faith communities across America and the world serving refugees from the grassroots to a policy level, I no longer ask What can I do to help? but a new question: Who are we without welcome?

Who would I be without welcome? All my ancestors sought refuge in the wake of historical Jewish persecution. My grandfather and his family fled Frankfurt in 1933 for Palestine, not yet a nation but a mandate under the British empire. Today I hold two passports, a privilege that feels downright decadent when working with undocumented persons. The best I can do is work to build community in which we all share equal joy and responsibility no matter where we were born, and tell and elevate the stories of those moving toward a better life.

A friend recently asked me what was the defining narrative of my life at present. In the past few months the answer has become astoundingly clear to me: I believe in the radical equality of all people, which in practice means building and fighting for an equal and compassionate community. I am now part of a community so diverse we are united primarily by our belief in this work. This is who we are because we welcome all.

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