By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:20-23.
This summer, Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department asking it to stop the resettlement of refugees in Springfield, claiming that they were draining the city’s resources.
Robert Marmor, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Western Mass., which has helped to resettle more than 1,400 refugees in and around Springfield in the past decade, quickly posted a message on the JFS website, discussing the issue and citing the agency’s role as a “proud partner [with Springfield] in this humanitarian cause.”
For Marmor and JFS, helping refugees – those fleeing persecution in their homelands – who arrive in Western Massachusetts is not just a job, it is a mandate.
“The Torah cautions us regarding our behavior toward the stranger no less than 36 times, the most repeated injunction in the Torah,” Marmor said. “We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land.”
Last week, Marmor, representatives of other area resettlement agencies and members of Mayor Sarno’s administration sat down to discuss the refugee issue.
“The Springfield joint task force for refugees met on Thursday. We had an excellent meeting where we shared information, came to some good understandings, and made agreements to meeting monthly so that we can continue to communicate. The general consensus was that we are moving forward,” Marmor said.
Marmor said that JFS has a contract with the U.S. Department of State, which dictates which groups are settled in the area. He said his agency has been told by the federal government that the same populations will continue to be resettled in their fiscal year of 2014, and that the government is looking at the Syrian refugee situation but nothing definitive has been decided yet about bringing Syrian refugees to the area.
Welcoming the Stranger
When JFS began operating in Springfield in 1898, the agency helped to settle Jews arriving from Eastern Europe. “All of the JFS’s were started to help support Jewish immigrants starting in the late 1800s to begin a new life in the United States,” Marmor said. “HIAS was started in the late 1800s and many of the Jewish agencies typically began by helping new Jewish immigrants with food, clothing, shelter and employment.”
After the passing of the Federal Refuge Act of 1980, JFS of Western Mass. resettled more than 1,000 Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union.
“Since then HIAS continues that mission to welcome the stranger and protect refugees through maybe a dozen JFS offices who continue to resettle regardless of religion or background,” Marmor said.
JFS of Western Mass. began this practice in 2003 with an initial group of Somali Bantu refugees, followed by groups of Iraqis, Bhutanese, and Burmese.
“We have a mandate to welcome the stranger. Even with that understanding, this is really the Jewish passion to repair the world and a Jewish commitment and a tradition of tikkun olam and chesed,” Marmor said. “The reason JFS does it is for those religious, value-based reasons, in combination with the fact that it is one of our program core competencies. We know how to do this and we know how to do it well. We chose to continue the program based on the fact that we are good at the program and it lies so deeply in our Jewish values.”
When JFS resettles a refugee or refugee family, they meet them at the airport as they arrive and they take them to the apartment that JFS has found for them, which is furnished with items, many donated by the local Jewish community. B’nai Tzedek, the teen philanthropy group of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, has provided JFS with a grant to fund the purchase of bed linens for these new homes. That first night, the newcomers are given a home-cooked ethnic meal as they settle into their new homes. For the next few weeks, JFS monitors the refugees, helps register children in school and helps individuals with things like getting their Social Security cards. JFS continues to work with many refugees up until they become eligible for citizenship after five years.
“Refugees come from highly traumatized situations, whether that be war, whether that be genocide, or whether that be other forms of persecution. And some refugees have a harder time integrating into their new community,” Marmor said. “The majority do well, the majority become economically self-sufficient fairly quickly. Like in any society, a small percentage really struggle. And we do have specialized programs to support some of the more vulnerable refugees but there are still challenges. Part of the conversations with the city is to look at these most vulnerable refugees and what can we as a community do – how can we rally our resources or more efficiently look at some of these vulnerable groups so we can come up with some new kinds of solutions.”