Day before Paris attacks, Virginia Beach commission issued call to help refugees from Syria, elsewhere

VIRGINIA BEACH – The city’s Human Rights Commission issued a global plea last week with uncanny timing.

On Thursday, the group passed a resolution urging government leaders at all levels — and their fellow citizens — to actively support the world’s refugees. Commissioner Rabbi Israel Zoberman said he was thinking of Syrian refugees fleeing conflict in their country when he came up with the idea for the resolution, which could be the first of its kind in Virginia.

The next day terrorists attacked Paris, killing at least 132 people and wounding hundreds more. On Monday, USA Today reported that at least 13 Republican U.S. governors had said they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states in the wake of reports that one of the bombers was found with a passport from that country.

Zoberman said Monday that he knows the attacks in Paris will cause some to turn away from the call for the United States to accept more refugees. He said what happened should make the country more willing to help the innocent.

“We cannot hold large groups of people responsible for the acts of extremists,” he said.

Later, he added, “We have to be careful about not closing our hearts to those who are begging us and begging European countries to help them.”

While Zoberman’s idea for the resolution began with a focus on Syrians, it expanded to include people worldwide. It says there are an estimated 60 million refugees and displaced people in the world — more than at any time since World War II — who are fleeing places, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Myanmar, Ukraine and Central and South America.

The resolution calls for the international community to share responsibility with host countries, significantly increase humanitarian aid, “and we urge our national leaders to dramatically increase annual refugee admissions.”

It calls on leaders at all levels, “as well as our fellow citizens, to actively support these refugees in their quest for a welcoming and safe environment free of the violence that forced them to flee their countries of origin.”

“We also must speak up when others label asylum seekers or conflate them with terrorists, when in fact many refugees are victims of terror,” the resolution says.

Zoberman recalled how his family, shortly after he was born in 1945, had to flee both Kazakhstan and Poland, before they found safety in an American-occupied area of Germany in 1947. He then grew up in Israel before coming to the United States.

“I was a refugee myself, with my family in post-World War II Europe,” he said.

While Zoberman called for greater support for refugees, he also supported bolstered background checks so the government knows who they are accepting.

Virginia Beach’s Human Rights Commission is a 17-person board appointed by the City Council with a mission “to advocate for the human rights of residents in the City of Virginia Beach,” according to a fact sheet on the city’s website.

The commission wants to share its refugee resolution with other human rights commissions in Virginia and elsewhere in hopes of building support for its message, Zoberman said. Deputy City Attorney Rod Ingram, who helped draft the document, said last week that as far as he knew the resolution was the first of its kind in Virginia.

It will be publicly announced at the commission’s meeting on Dec. 10, which is also Human Rights Day.

At its Nov. 12 meeting, Fr. James Parke, another commissioner, said he wanted to hold that Dec. 10 meeting in a more public setting so the refugee resolution can be heard by more people, instead of in their usual meeting room in Building 19 of the Municipal Center.

Zoberman said copies will be distributed to the mayor and council members.

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