By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – At a time when the number of world refugees is at the highest number ever recorded, The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford is offering a helping hand as part of an interfaith effort to resettle a refugee family from southeast Asia in Hartford.
Emanuel’s B’Yadenu social action committee is a member of the Greater Hartford Refugee Resettlement Coalition (GHRRC), a volunteer organization of faith-based and non-profits groups formed last year. The other members of GHRRC are First Church of Christ in Farmington, Avon Congregational Church, the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center, and Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition (CIRC).
“‘B’Yadenu’ in Hebrew means ‘in our hands,’” says Janet Wallans, co-chair of the social action committee, explaining B’Yadenu’s mission to reach out to those in need, not just locally but globally as well.
“I just feel that helping refugees is the right thing to do,” Wallans says. “It’s not only a part of our Jewish values but these are people in trouble and it’s always been one of the values of this country to help the stranger – it’s on the Statue of Liberty. So it’s an obligation and a desire to help those in need.”
The newly resettled refugee family is part of the Karen people from the mountains of Myanmar. For many years the Karen have experienced displacement and religious persecution by the Myanmar government. The resettled family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for several years before getting the chance to come to the United States.
The family of seven – two parents and five children ages one to 13 – arrived in Hartford a month ago, assisted by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a federally recognized refugee resettlement agency in New Haven. First Church has taken the lead in sponsoring the new family.
“These people are amazing,” says Rev. Susan Gibson of First Church. “They have endured so much and then they come here. All of a sudden they have to live through their first snowstorm and figure out how to ride a bus. Moving from a refugee camp in the hills of Thailand to Hartford is a big change.”
When word came that the Karen family were coming to Hartford, GHRRC members swung into action to prepare for their arrival.
Robert Fishman, B’Yadenu member and executive director of CIRC, and Emanuel member Art Nassau, worked for weeks to find an apartment in Hartford for the family. The only possessions the family had when they first arrived were in a backpack carried by the father.
“We helped by collecting donations and setting up the apartment,” says Wallans.
That meant helping to furnish it with everything the family would need – furniture, kitchen supplies, warm clothing and food. When the family finally arrived at their new apartment, they were met by a person from Hartford’s Karen community, who prepared an “ethnically appropriate meal” for them.
“The First Church took on a big portion of it at the beginning, making sure the family got to social security, to DSS [Department of Social Services], to medical appointments,” Wallans says. “That first week was really non-stop.”
Now, people on GHRRC’s different committees are helping the family in several other areas.
“People are helping them understand finances and what it means; how to manage their money,” says Paul Kix, a member of First Church and chair of GHRRC. “There is a whole group of people helping them learn how to navigate the bus system and whole group of people that are drivers, driving them to and from doctor’s appointments and other appointments.
“There’s also a committee working with them on getting the children signed up for school,” Kix continues. “There’s a committee that is keeping track of all of the medical stuff and helping them to navigate the healthcare system because these are people that have been in refugee camps and have multiple medical issues… and there are people that are helping them understand going to a grocery store. So it’s amazing. All of these people are kind of stepping up and really helping. It’s mind-boggling and it’s inspiring.”
Wallans, who met with the family last month, helped them get acquainted with the local bus service.
“They are just a very sweet family,” Wallans says.
Catholic Charities has helped to resettle Karen families in Hartford over the past 10 years. There are now around 150 members of the Karen community living near each other in Hartford.
First Church has a long history of working in refugee resettlement. Since the 1980s, the congregation has helped to resettle people from Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Laos and Iraq.
“We wanted to continue with that, especially in this time of great need,” Gibson says. “We started to look into how to be a part of that. We had always worked with an agency like IRIS but hadn’t partnered with other congregations to do this. We had been talking with Emanuel Synagogue for about a year working on ways that we could actually partner together, and that’s how we started working with Emanuel synagogue on refugee resettlement.”
When members of Avon Congregational, American Muslim Center and other people not affiliated with a congregation joined in, the Greater Hartford Refugee Resettlement Coalition was formed.
Working with First Church on refugee resettlement was a natural for Emanuel.
Like so many other Connecticut synagogues and Jewish agencies, Emanuel congregants, like Bob Fishman and his wife, Susan, and its pre-B’Yadenu social action committee, helped in the resettlement of Russian Jews in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Working together to help other human beings make their way in this world is one of the best ways for people of different faiths to bond. When we witness the ways that others respond to the brokenness of the world with kindness and determination, we develop mutual respect for each other and for our respective faith traditions,” Rabbi David Small, spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue says. “From the time she arrived in the area, Rev. Susan Gibson made herself a trusted friend and colleague. It has been a privilege to meet and know many of her flock and a joy to witness the growing friendship between our congregations.”
When IRIS told them that to resettle a refugee family would cost $4,000 to $10,000 more than what the government would fund, Emanuel began fundraising.
On Sept. 8, B’Yadenu hosted a fundraiser “Welcoming the Stranger,” featuring a talk by IRIS Executive Director Chris George. With a goal of raising $10,000 from the event, the Emanuel ended up raising more than $11,000, which was fortunate due to the new family’s large size and additional needs.
B’Yadenu has also joined the “Welcome Campaign,” a part of HIAS, the largest Jewish American nonprofit organization providing humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees.
“Part of that means making a pledge to help support the refugee community,” says Risa Davidson, who co-chairs B’Yadenu with Wallans. “The committee is working on not only helping this family but raising awareness and advocating for refugees, and also raising funds in support of refugees.”
As part of the Welcome Campaign, Emanuel held a Refugee Shabbat last year and plans to hold another one in spring 2020.
They have also planned a program for Sunday, Jan. 12, “Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Past, Present and Future,” with Prof. Jon Bauer, director of the University of Connecticut Law School Asylum and Human Rights Clinic. Rev. Gibson and Rabbi Small will offer a brief teaching at the event, “Caring for the Stranger – Sources from our Faith Traditions.”
“We feel that it’s important to have educational programming and to do advocacy work, and to find out from experts what we can do to take some action,” Davidson says.
B’Yadenu, the social action arm of The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive in West Hartford will present “Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Past, Present , Future,” with Prof. Jon Bauer, director of the UConn Law School Asylum and Human Rights Clinic on Sunday, Jan; 12 at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public but donations to the clinic will be accepted at the door. For more information go to https://www.emanuelsynagogue.org.