Simy Portal-Stein

Simy Portal Stein

I am a Middle-East refugee. I am celebrating my Jubilee year as it is now fifty years since I was smuggled out of Morocco with 500 other Jewishchildren. At that time Jews could not freely leave Morocco. We were second-class citizens even though our families had lived there for centuries. My family came to Morocco over 500 years ago from Spain. Jews had been expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Spanish rulers who financed the voyages of Columbus. In an undercover operation run by the Israeli Mosad, 500 children were sent to a summer camp in Switzerland. Moroccan officials were told that we would be returning in a few weeks. In fact we went from the Swiss Alps to Israel where we were able to begin new lives. A couple of years later other members of my family joined us as Morocco eased travel restrictions. The Jewish population of Morocco has dwindled from over 250,000 to about 5,000 now.

Jews from all Arab lands once numbered about 800,000. Most of us fled to Israel. We left our homes and businesses. Some were able to leave peacefully, other barely escaped with their lives. The route I took was dangerous, and those who arranged the operation could have been imprisoned or executed for helping us had they been caught. Prior to my rescue, a boat carrying Jewish children had sunk with many killed. Fortunately the King of Morocco made it easier for others that followed me. Jews of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere had an even more difficult time and suffered severe persecution.

We did not receive any help from the United Nations. There were no Resolutions on our behalf. The government and people of Israel along with world Jewry provided us with a home. Many, like the Mosad agents in Morocco risked their lives to help save us from a life where we would never be free. We were provided with housing and an education. We learned Hebrew and were assimilated into the country. Efforts were made to improve our lives.

Today Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa can have a life where they can practice their religion and customs without fear of reprisal from their Arab neighbors or a hostile government. We did it ourselves without great fanfare. In some circles we are called the “Forgotten Refugees” because our story is rarely told.

I don’t mean to belittle the plight of Arab refugees who have lived in camps for years and have taken handouts from the United Nations, but the contrast is overwhelming. We were uprooted from our homes where we had been for hundreds of years and yet we have created a productive new lives. The Arab refugee problem could have been solved decades ago had there been the will to do so instead of using it as a political lightning rod for Arab radicalism. Where Israeli leaders rescued us, the Arab leaders manipulated and exploited their people.

Taken from her op-ed piece, “Simy Portal Stein: Telling a tale of ‘forgotten refugees” in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which was published on August 7th, 2011.