By Rabbi Jacqueline Romm Satlow, Director/Jewish Culture Coordinator; Center for Religious and Spiritual Life
Passover is a Jewish spring time holiday, coming March 30 to April 7 this year. One of the most significant rituals related to the holiday is a ritual meal called a Seder. During the Seder, Jewish families re-enact the story, told in the biblical book of Exodus, of escaping from slavery to freedom. In 2018, the story of refugees escaping terrible conditions and searching for freedom and safety is resonates strongly with the story of Passover. Thank you to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for sharing the following story with me. In 1992, at the age of 24, Tashitaa Tafuaa came to the United States, where he sought political asylum. Through Tashitaa had earned a college degree in his native Ethiopia, when he came to the US, the only work he could find was as a dishwasher, making less than $6 per hour. In order to make ends meet, Tashitaa took on several jobs, including working as a taxi driver.
After almost a decade of working long, hard hours, Tashitaa challenged himself to start his own business. In 2003, he went door-to-door in his new home state of Minnesota to try to find clients for his new transportation business. Three years later, Tashitaa had successfully launched the Metropolitan Transportation Network (MTN). Started with just his taxi and his wife’s minivan, this new company was so successful that Tashitaa was able to buy school buses; though he had to pay for them in cash. Today, MTN is one of the largest bus companies in Minnesota, employing hundreds of people and generating tens of millions of dollars in income. In addition to running the business, Tashitaa also mentors refugees across the country to help them achieve financial self-sufficiency and success for themselves and their families.
Tashitaa’s story resonates with my own family’s story of coming to the United States. My family came to the US in the 1880s from very small towns in Eastern Europe in a part of the world that was sometimes Poland, sometimes Russia, sometimes Ukraine and sometimes Hungary. The law restricted Jews to particular small towns (shtetls). They were forbidden (by the laws of the countries in which they lived) to own land. There was very little work in that area and they lived lives of desperate poverty. They also lived in fear of those neighbors who hated them. Anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) were common and resulted in much loss of property and life. Not everyone was anti-Semitic, but the law did not protect the Jews against those who were. In the 1880s, the United States had open immigration. My family made the very intelligent decision to come here. The Nazis moved through Eastern Europe very quickly in the 1940s and murdered the Jews. Survivors from the towns my great-grandparents came from were very few.
My great-grand parents felt fortunate to have found safe refuge here. Yet, it was not easy for them. My great-grandfather sold bananas from a pushcart on the lower east side of New York City. He made only pennies and the family was frequently hungry and occasionally homeless. My grandparents knew no English until they started first grade in the New York City public schools. They left school after the 8th grade because they had to make a living and support their parents. In their own eyes, they thrived. One grandfather opened a luncheonette. The other opened a fish store. My father had to help his father open that fish store every morning before the sun went up. He went to school humiliated because he smelled like fish. Yet, he graduated from high school. Thanks to the ROTC, he made it through college and served as an officer in the US army. Here we are…. Alive despite the Nazis, thriving, without fear of hunger and homelessness. America came through for us. An important part of its mission is to come through for other refugees who need help. Immigrants make America great.