Introductory Speeches

Welcome (Alan Le Fevre)

Welcome to this year’s commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day as we honour the Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s leading global Jewish humanitarian organization – and, in particular, its courageous support for Ukrainian refugees.  Sadly, the invasion and conflict in Ukraine are continuing.  A consequence of war, apart from the great destruction and suffering, is the mass displacement of people as they flee the conflict in order to survive.

Today’s topic is about helping refugees.  Since the beginning of human history, conflict, and disaster have forced people to flee their homes.  However, global coordination of refugee aid is relatively new.  Just one hundred years ago, following WW1, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen laid the groundwork for effective international refugee aid, for which he received the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize.  You will hear more about him later.

Returning to today, the current Ukraine conflict has caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since WW2.  In addition to vast internal displacement, from a population of 41 million Ukrainians, 8 million (mostly women and children, and some seniors) have fled to Europe and other parts of the world.  In the face of so much need, the Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC) has played an important role in helping today’s refugees.  This work continues its illustrious history: since its founding in 1914, the JDC has provided support for refugees whenever and wherever needed, propelled by Jewish values and a commitment to mutual responsibility.

We’re here today to recognize, in particular, the civil courage that JDC volunteers demonstrate as they help people in or near active areas of conflict.  And so, I’d like to take a moment to give you some background about the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society and the concept of civil courage.

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman, diplomat and humanitarian, became Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary in the summer of 1944, several months after the Nazi deportation of Hungarian Jews began.  He issued protective passports and sheltered people in buildings designated as Swedish territory.  In so doing, he saved tens of thousands of Jews from deportation and death.  He disappeared on January 17, 1945, into Soviet captivity, and was never seen again.  Wallenberg has been made an honorary citizen of Canada, the US, Hungary, Australia, and Israel.  In 2000, the Canadian Government proclaimed January 17th as Raoul Wallenberg Day.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul in Lithuania for Japan during World War II.  At professional and personal risk to himself and his family, he issued transit visas that allowed thousands of Jews from Poland and Lithuania to escape certain death.

Both Wallenberg and Sugihara have been designated by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.

Anders Neumuller, the former honorary Swedish Consul in Vancouver, organized Vancouver’s first Wallenberg Day event in 2006.  Then, in 2013, with local Swedish and Jewish communities, he helped create the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, a non-profit society dedicated to honouring acts of civil courage. 

We define civil courage as an action which entails personal risk or sacrifice, intended to improve or save the lives of others who suffer from violence, conflict, or injustice – wrongs that may stem from any social context ranging from nations to peer groups.

Our Society has three main goals:

  1. To honour the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara,
  2. To recognize people who have acted with similar civil courage, and
  3. To encourage and promote acts of civil courage in our midst.

And now I’d like to invite the City of Vancouver Deputy Mayor, Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung to read the Proclamation.


Introduction for Marina Sonkina (George Bluman)

It is my pleasure to introduce our guest speaker Dr Marina Sonkina, a local educator and writer.  Soon after Russia attacked Ukraine, Marina applied to volunteer with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as someone who speaks Russian, Ukrainian and other languages and as someone who had been a refugee herself.  Almost immediately, she was accepted and flew to Poland at the end of March.

After arriving in Warsaw, about five hours later, Marina was at the Polish Ukrainian border where she served in a camp as a frontline responder, offering fleeing refugees medical and psychological support.

To relieve her trauma late in the day, Marina wrote about her activities.  As a consequence, Marina has written about a dozen heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories on her experiences in helping Ukrainian refugees.  A resulting book, titled “Ukrainian Portraits: Diaries from the Border” will be published in March by Guernica Editions.

Marina is a very courageous woman.  She was born in Moscow.  Her mother was a well-known literary editor and critic in Moscow who edited many famous writers, including the first stories of Solzhenitsyn.  Marina obtained her PhD in linguistics in Moscow and then lectured in Russian Literature for 15 years at Moscow State University.

In 1987, during Soviet times, she came to Canada as a refugee with her two young sons to avoid their ending up as cannon fodder in Afghanistan.  In Montreal, for five years she worked in the Russian section of CBC’s Radio Canada International as a producer and broadcaster.  Eventually, Marina came to Vancouver.

For the past 25 years she has been teaching courses at SFU and UBC, especially for SFU’s Liberal Arts program for seniors, in Russian and European Literature, art, film and ballet.  Before Covid, Marina took her students on field trips to Russia and former Soviet republics.  She loves yoga and dancing tango.

Marina has two grandchildren in Moscow and an aunt and cousin living in Zaporizhia, and in Marina’s words, “under the very armpit of the nuclear plant shelled by the Russians.” Coincidentally, her older son Theodore was one of my Masters students at UBC and is currently Professor of Mathematics at Dalhousie University in Halifax.  Her younger son Yuri is a well known Russian American actor.  He has acted in about 30 films in Hollywood and Russia, recently returning to his home in Los Angeles after spending three months completing a film in Moscow.  Yuri played the role of Stryr in Game of Thrones.

In addition to her forthcoming book about her recent experiences in Ukraine, Marina Sonkina has written several books of short stories as well as two books for children.  Some of her books will be offered for sale during the reception time after the question period that ends today’s program.


Introduction for Joint Distribution Committee (Gene Homel)

Gene Homel introduced himself as an historian teaching about Europe in the 20th century for many years, which he said made him long aware of the humanitarian role played by the Joint Distribution Committee in Europe.

“In Ukraine today the focus of loyalty is a civic one: it's on the national state rather than ethnicity, it's a pluralistic and multiethnic society that's being created, forged largely as a result of Russia's criminal attack on Ukraine.”

Dr Homel provided a brief historical overview of the JDC's work from its founding in 1914, through the chaos and violence of the post-WW1 period, the refugee crisis in the 1930s, and the aid extended in Displaced Persons camps after the WW2, as a supplement to the Allied armed forces.  Homel ended by referring to the current work with Ukrainian Jews and non-Jews, and the assistance extended by the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow, Poland, to non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine.


Introduction for Films (Judith Anderson)

As we recognize the work of the Joint Distribution Committee today, we want to honour the memory of another great advocate for refugees.  101 years ago, in 1922, Fridtjof Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering international efforts in refugee relief.  Nansen was born in Norway in 1861.  He packed three full careers into his early years:

  • As a scientist, he carried out important research in both neuroscience and oceanography.
  • As an explorer, he made the first Crossing of the Greenland icecap and achieved the closest approach yet to the North Pole, over 86°N.
  • He was a devoted family man with 5 children.

Then, in the early 1900s, Nansen began yet another career.  This energetic scientist and explorer had become a big fish in the small pond of Norway.  Inevitably he was asked, and reluctantly agreed, to take on increasingly complex political and diplomatic responsibilities for his nation and for the world.

Between 1920 and his death in 1930, Nansen was Norway’s delegate to the League of Nations and became its High Commissioner for Refugees.  He laid the foundation for internationally coordinated assistance to refugees.  Despite the dysfunction that hobbled the League of Nations, he achieved unprecedented results and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.  Just to give you an idea of the scope of Nansen’s work during that decade –

  • He organized the repatriation of 450,000 prisoners of war, mostly held in Soviet Russia.
  • He developed the Nansen Passport, an internationally recognized document that enabled hundreds of thousands of stateless refugees to move between countries.
  • In response to a severe famine in Soviet Russia, Nansen directed relief efforts that saved between 7 million and  22 million people from starvation.
  • He arranged for the repatriation of nearly two million Greeks and Turks who had been displaced by conflict between those countries.
  • He drew up a comprehensive plan to help tens of thousands of Armenians, who had suffered genocidal persecution in Turkey.

The Nansen story is directly relevant to Ukraine.  The headquarters for Nansen’s  mission to Russia was in Ukraine’s Kharkiv, and Nansen donated part of his Nobel Peace Prize money to establish a major agricultural project in Ukraine.

Nansen’s achievements required firm values and intense dedication.  You will see, in the two short videos about Nansen, that his face clearly displays the heavy responsibility he bore.  It’s a measure of his greatness that he persevered, to the benefit of millions.

Last year (2022), the centennial of Nansen’s Nobel Peace Prize, the global number of forcibly displaced people passed 100 million for the first time.  Those firm values and intense dedication are still desperately needed, and they are exemplified by the Joint Distribution Committee, as they have been for decades.

After the Nansen videos, we are honoured to share with you “Ukraine Crisis” – a special compilation of video stories, examples of the current work of the JDC in Ukraine and neighbouring nations.  I’m sure you will find this presentation incredibly moving.

As you watch, please keep two perspectives in mind.  First, you’ll see JDC workers calmly and compassionately displaying civil courage.  They’re on the ground in and near the dangerous conflict zone, taking risks and sacrificing much as they help people in need.

Second, as we all know, the situation in Ukraine has become even more dire over the last few months.  Winter has closed in, and deliberate attacks on homes and infrastructure have plunged Ukrainians into darkness and cold.  As you watch the stories of the JDC workers, please imagine how the warm, courageous acts you see on our bright screen are continuing right now – often under relentless bombardment and in icy blackness.

We thank the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Nobel Peace Center for permission to show the two short videos about Fridtjof Nansen.  And we thank the JDC staff members and directors who organized and compiled “Ukraine Crisis” for us – Shaun Goldstone, Solly Kaplinski, and Alex Weisler.

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