By Stacey Dresner (with additional reporting by JTA)
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — American Jewish organizations don’t see the Syrian refugees as a threat; they see them as a reminder.
With rare unanimity on an issue that has stirred partisan passion, a cross-section of the community has defended the Obama administration’s refugee policy in terms recalling the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe who were refused entry into the United States.
“The Jewish community has an important perspective on this debate,” the Orthodox Union said in a statement. “Just a few decades ago, refugees from the terror and violence in Hitler’s Europe sought refuge in the United States and were turned away due to suspicions about their nationality.”
Echoed the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “We can sadly remember all too well the Jews who were turned away when they sought refuge in the United States on the eve of, and during, World War II.”
Eleven other Jewish organizations joined another 70 groups in pleading with Congress to keep open the Obama administration’s program, which would allow in 10,000 refugees over the next year from among the 200,000 to 300,000 in Europe. Among the signatories were the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and HIAS, the lead Jewish body dealing with immigration issues.
In New England, one Jewish agency is at the forefront in the effort to resettle Syrian refugees. And given its experience, it isn’t surprising.
The Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts (JFS) has a long history of helping refugees from other countries resettle in America.
When JFS began operating in Springfield in 1898, the agency helped to settle Jews arriving from Eastern Europe. After the passing of the Federal Refugee Act of 1980, JFS of Western Mass. resettled more than 1,000 Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Since 2003, JFS has resettled a number of Somali Bantu, Iraqi, Bhutanese, and Burmese refugees.
Now JFS of Western Massachusetts is helping to resettle refugees from war-torn Syria.
“Why are we doing this work? It goes back to our own value system as Jews,” says Maxine Stein, president and CEO of JFS of Western Massachusetts. “HIAS has been doing this since 1881 and they were formed to protect refugees. We have been rescued as Jews and we need to help others to be rescued because we know what it is like. We have experienced it. We are the Jewish community voice in U.S. refugee resettlement.”
According to Deirdre Griffin, director of JFS’ New American Program, JFS began welcoming Syrian refugees in January 2014. Since then a total of 22 Syrians have arrived – 13 of them since July; 11 of them children.
“Their journeys vary, but most of them left Syria about three years ago, walked to neighboring countries, then spent some time as refugees in bordering countries, like Turkey or Lebanon,” says Griffin. “The systems in those countries are different than here. There is such a long history of people being displaced for short periods during times of violence, that there is a culture of welcome that is understood to be temporary. The changes in the world in the last few years mean that the stays are becoming longer. Countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are reaching the point where they are overwhelmed.”
After making it to a bordering nation, the refugees register with the United Nations, “becoming a part of the world-wide queue” of refugees,” Griffin says.
The UN then works with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to screen the individuals.
“Once people have made it through those processes and clearances, then the U.S. Department of State contracts with nine voluntary agencies or “volags” who basically sit down and look at who is ready to travel,” Griffin said.
HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is the “volag” that works directly with JFS of Western Mass.
It is often helpful if refugees have a U.S. tie or family members already living in the U.S. But the Syrians often don’t have either. Griffin and the JFS resettlement staff work have been working to aid these Syrian refugees since last spring, she said.
“We have a quarterly consultation where we try to bring all of the stakeholders together who are working in refugee resettlement or who may encounter folks who arrive. People from the public schools, from the social services agencies, we work with employers and landlords to try to connect with jobs and housing,” says Griffin. ”Knowing that some of those people have been in quite intense transit for some time means they will probably come with some higher immediate medical needs. There are issues of malnutrition, which are common to everybody, but more so for folks coming from Syria and this intense period of movement.”
Often, JFS doesn’t get much notice before refugees get here – but they are prepared to swing into action quickly.
“For people coming in September, we got two to three weeks,” Griffin says. “We had to find them an apartment and furnishings, connect with the local health providers. We have bilingual and bicultural staff who meet the folks at the airport. They then bring them to the home, have a meal ready for them and just help them ‘land’ for a few days.”
Some of the refugees are shell-shocked.
“It is very clear that they have been through a lot of trauma recently,” says Griffin. “There is a lot of ‘companioning’ them and helping them work through what are realistic expectations. There is a lot of anxiety, so we work really hard at maintaining a relationship with people.”
Because the initial resettlement period is actually only for 90 days, JFS’ New American program offers the Cultural Broker program, which helps ease refugees into their new lives in Springfield.
“The Cultural Broker program basically is a prevention program,” explains Stein . “The idea is to promote the family and personal stability in work, school and relationships. That is done with someone from their own culture. The idea is to foster independence and wellness.”
Through the Cultural Broker program, JFS offers supplemental programs, such as programs that help children integrate into schools, health support programs, domestic violence prevention programs, as well as an employment program and a citizenship program.
“We try to maintain relationships with most of the refugees for five years after they become permanent residents, which is when they can apply for citizenship,” says Stein.
Each refugee arriving in the U.S. receives $925.
“This is the money our staff has to rent an apartment, do the basic furnishings and some food shopping. And then some cash for the two weeks that it takes for us to get them connected to SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Griffin says. “Part of our job initially is to get them enrolled in the programs to get them on the same footing as someone who needs public assistance in Massachusetts.”
All of the Syrians who have resettled speak only Arabic.
“The kids will be in a bilingual classroom but will really pick up a lot through immersion,” Griffin says. “The parents can receive English lessons through our employment program.”
Unfortunately, she notes, Syrian women are generally not employed outside the home; thus, they can’t make use of the employment program and its English classes. “We’ve been working with volunteers to connect with some of those women and do some individualized tutoring,” Griffin says.
Through the employment program, JFS works with employers, doing a lot of “cajoling of employers to take the risk of employing someone who doesn’t speak much English. But our experience is that once folks connect, they are so grateful to have a job and become very dedicated,” she says.
JFS then provides post-employment support to both the employee and employers to make sure things work out smoothly.
Griffin said it takes usually between three to five years for refugees to become financially independent.
“Springfield is a great place to resettle refugees because there is available housing here that is feasible for people on a limited income. Springfield is also easy to navigate in terms of public transportation, and there are employers here – hospitality and food preparation and industrial companies — with really good entry-level jobs for people who are coming in.”
JFS has been even more busy in the resettlement area lately, and not just with the new Syrian population. In September alone, JFS helped to resettle 78 people from various countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Nepal. That was one-third of the number JFS resettled for the entire year.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, praised the work of JFS and its resettlement program.
“Syrian refugees who have lost everything are getting a warm welcome from the Jewish Family Service in Springfield, which is HIAS’ partner in Western Massachusetts to resettle refugees,” Hetfield said. “For nearly all of these refugees, this is their first encounter ever with a Jewish organization. This impression from their first weeks in America will last a lifetime. Let’s welcome them the way that we were welcomed — or the way we wish we had been welcomed.”
CAP: JFS New American staff at a recent HIAS conference: (l to r) Alda Balbino, Refugee Resettlement coordinator; Marc Dulaimy, Family Support specialist/Refugee School Impact program coordinator; and Deirdre Griffin, New American program director.