Author Lee Bycel visits Ramapo to share the stories of refugees

Photo by Aaron Acevedo

Hosted by the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, author and rabbi Lee T. Bycel spoke to students and faculty about his newest book, “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience, and Hope in Their Own Words.” 

Bycel began with an overview of what he hoped to accomplish with his publication and what inspired him to act against injustice. Focusing on 11 different immigrants telling their stories as to how they were driven to America, Bycel aims to reclaim their words in order to let their true experiences come to light. 

“I’m the narrator, but it’s their words that are centered and italicized,” Bycel told the group.

During the Rwandan genocide, which was almost 25 years ago this year, Bycel recounts, “I did nothing.”

He reminisced on not even donating $1 in aid and began to deeply question why he didn’t act. So in 2003, when word of the violence in Darfur spread to the States, he knew he must act and was prompted to do something for Darfur. Bycel got involved with the International Medical Corp so he could “bear witness and be present.” 

While traveling to northern Chad in 2004, Bycel said he “heard stories about the worst of humanity.” He began to see the power of the human story and how only a handful of Americans truly understand the refugee story. 

“I wanted to bring their stories to life,” said Bycel passionately. 

In Bycel’s book, he outlines the journeys refugees took to come to America and the obstacles they faced along the way. Each chapter begins with context of the time period and country which the refugee is from, followed by narration and direct words from the refugees describing their own story. 

One refugee describes how in her daily life, she was getting used to seeing bodies everywhere on the streets. After the lives of her family were threatened, she knew she needed to protect her children and leave; she never knew she would become a refugee. 

Another story reveals how one man immigrated as a child, which gave him an easier chance to acclimate to American society, culture and language. However, even as a child he was ridiculed for speaking differently compared to the other children. 

“We make people less than human,” said Bycel. 

The resilience of refugees is so often overlooked. The fabric of our country is currently frayed with anti-immigrant sentiment running wild. However, when one looks past country, language and skin color, and looks into the eyes of the refugee, we see a human being, a soul in need. What if it were you? What if it was someone you loved?

“What’s missing in our dialogue is the human voice,” he said. “Every number is a human being.”