Going the Distance for Refugees. Literally.

By Gabe Cahn, HIAS.org

“Rather than trying to come up with something out of nowhere, I used what I was already doing,” said Melinda Menzer, an English professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina and a refugee advocate.

Menzer is an avid swimmer and member of U.S. Masters Swimming. She has trained for and completed many long-distance open water swims, including the Alcatraz Swim, a 1.5 mile swim from the former prison to the shore.

But when she swam 9.2 miles in the Tennessee River on Sunday, June 4, as part of the Chattanooga Swim Fest, it was her first time using her talents in order to raise awareness and solicit support for a cause.

Although Menzer only recently learned about HIAS, the idea that refugees need to be able to find a safe place to escape to was already painfully clear from her own family’s history.

On a 2003 trip to Lithuania, Menzer retraced her family’s heritage and learned more about the tragic consequences of countries like the United States closing its doors to people facing persecution simply because of their nationality.

“I stood in the place where my great uncle was shot,” she told HIAS.org.

“I am personally motivated to help refugees because I know what happens when we don’t help refugees,” Mezner said in an interview with GreenvilleOnline. “Many of the people who are trying to get to safe places now are like my family was in 1941.”

On the same trip, she learned the story of a young Japanese diplomat who risked it all to help Jews escape Lithuania during the war. “I recognized that ordinary people can help other ordinary people in these terrible circumstances.”

When this administration began issuing executive orders restricting U.S. refugee resettlement and immigration from Muslim-majority countries, Menzer knew she had an opportunity to make a difference.

“Everything was getting shut down, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to do something.’”

After learning about HIAS’ work through her rabbi at Temple of Israel in Greenville, Menzer set up a personal fundraising page on HIAS.org with the initial goal of raising $1,800. She began training in the pool in early March, dedicating one day of her regular swimming regiment each week to going incrementally longer distances in preparation for the 9.2 mile race.

On race day, Menzer was prepared for a grueling four hour swim and, based on weather forecasts, the unfortunate possibility of thunder and lightning.

She set off with fellow Furman professor Brandon Inabinet trailing closely in a kayak. Thanks to a stronger than expected current, she finished the race in just over two and a half hours—beating even the well-deserved pizza delivery to the finish line.

“It was terrific. A beautiful day on the water,” Menzer said.

Even better: through word of mouth and by sharing on social media, she had raised nearly double her fundraising goal, bringing in almost $3,500.

In addition to showing her the generosity of her Jewish, professional and swimming communities, Menzer said that the effort allowed her to connect with these colleagues in new ways.

“Other people in my community have come up and said to me, ‘you know, HIAS helped my family.’”

Her refugee advocacy also seems to be getting contagious in her own household. Too busy training to help plan one of the recent June 6 St. Louis Vigils herself, Menzer’s 19-year old daughter Delia organized and led the Greenville vigil—with her 12-year old son Miles tasked with photographing the event.

“I learned from my mother that helping people is the most important thing,” said Delia. 

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