By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts 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 Refuge Act of 1980, JFS of Western Mass. resettled more than 1,000 Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union. And 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,” said 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.”
JFS began welcoming Syrian refugees in January of 2014. Since then a total of 22 people have arrived from Syria. Thirteen of them have arrived since this past July.
These refugees include three families with five members and two families with three members – all including 11 children – as well as one single individual who arrived in October – the grandmother to one of the families.
“Their journeys really vary, but for most of them they left Syria maybe three years ago, walked to neighboring countries and then spent some time as refugees in bordering countries, like Turkey or Lebanon,” said Deirdre Griffin, director of JFS’ New American Program.
“The systems in those countries are different than here,” Griffin explained. “There is such a long history of people being displaced for short periods of time during times of violence, that there is really a culture of welcome that is understood to be temporary. The changes in the world in the last few years means that the stays are becoming longer. Countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are reaching the point where they are overwhelmed.”
The journey of these refugees from Syria have been quite intense. After making it to a bordering nation, they had to register with the United Nations, “becoming a part of the world-wide queue” of refugees, Griffin said.
The UN then worked with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which 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 Jewish Family Service in Western Massachusetts.
It is often helpful if refugees have a “U.S. Tie” or family members already living in the U.S.
But the Syrians are a “newly arriving community,” Griffin explained, so there aren’t many who have U.S. ties.
Griffin and the JFS resettlement staff 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 try to connect with employers, with housing – landlords we work with,” Griffin said.
At the quarterly consultation last spring, HIAS and the State office for refugees were aware that there was some political pressure to help members of the Syrian community to get into the U.S.
“So we started that conversation. 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.”
JFS gets varying lengths of notice before refugees get here.
“So for people coming in September, we got two to three weeks,” Griffin said. “We had to find them an apartment, find furnishings for the apartment, connect with the local health providers so they can make appointments for the people when they first come. We have bilingual and bicultural staff who find the apartments and then meet the folks at the airport, most often at Bradley. (Most people tend to come in through JFK in New York and then are transported to Bradley Airport). They then bring them to the home, have a meal ready for them and just help them ‘land’ for a few days.”
Griffin said that some of the Syrians who are being resettled are pretty shell-shocked.
“Since most have been here for about two months, they have gotten their initial bearings,” she said. “They have been to all of their required medical appointments. One man has started working already, but it is very clear that they have been through a lot of trauma recently. There is a lot of “companioning” them and helping them work through what are realistic expectations. And 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 to successfully ease refugees into their new lives in Springfield.
“The cultural broker program is a prevention program basically,” Maxine Stein explained. “The whole idea is to promote the family and personal stability in work, school and relationships. That is done with someone from their own culture. The whole idea is fostering independence and wellness.”
Through this Cultural broker program, JFS offers supplemental programs to 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.”
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 said. “Part of our job initially is to get them enrolled in the programs that would basically 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 said. “The parents can receive English lessons through our employment program.”
But there are some cultural issues – generally the Syrian women JFS is encountering aren’t employed outside the home, and so they cannot 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 said.
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.”
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 getting around from Point A to Point B, 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, trying to work toward the U.S.’ annual quota of resettling 75,000 by the end of the fiscal year, JFS helped to resettle 78 people from various countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Nepal.
This 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: Jewish Family Services New American staff, from left to right: Alda Balbino, Refugee Resettlement Coordinator; Marc Dulaimy, Family Support Specialist/Refugee School Impact Program Coordinator; and Deirdre Griffin, New American Program Director.